Viewpoints: Deadbeat dam projects shouldn’t be part of water bond

In November, California voters will be asked how much money they want to borrow to improve the state’s water infrastructure and fight the drought. Because polls show an $11.1 billion general obligation bond on the Nov. 4 ballot is too expensive for many voters, legislators are scrambling to revise the water bond to make it more palatable.

Along with the total amount, another point of contention is how much is allotted to building new and enlarging existing surface storage dams. The current bond and the $8.7 billion version proposed by Senate Republicans include $3 billion for new and bigger dams, but Gov. Jerry Brown’s $6 billion proposal whittles this down to $2 billion. A coalition of environmental groups allocates $1 billion for surface storage in its $6 billion plan.

However, the bond debate ignores the fact that publicly funded new or expanded dams are a 19th century solution to our 21st century water needs that runs afoul of the very real law of diminishing returns.

All the most productive and cost-effective dam sites in California have already been developed. The new dam projects most likely to be funded by a water bond will increase California’s total water supply by as little as 1 percent, while costing nearly $9 billion to build. Even if funded today, none of these dam projects would provide any significant relief to our current drought problems.

The latest gambit by the people who want taxpayers to pay for their deadbeat dam projects is to claim that dams provide some hypothetical environmental benefits. For example, the proposal to raise Shasta Dam and expand its reservoir on the Sacramento River will, according to government documents, increase our total water supply by an amount that equals two-tenths of 1 percent of our annual water use.

But the government claims the “real” public benefit from raising Shasta Dam will be cold water from the expanded reservoir to restore endangered salmon, which currently struggle to spawn in the river downstream of the dam.

The government allocates 61 percent of the more than billion-dollar cost to raise Shasta Dam to salmon improvement, which means the taxpayers will pay for this cost, through the water bond and federal appropriations. Except that another federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, believes the salmon improvement benefits of raising Shasta Dam are negligible.

The dubious claim that the Shasta Dam raise will produce significant public benefits (whether it’s water for people or fish), coupled with its undeniable impacts on Native American culture and the environment, makes public funding of this project a charade.

Similar questions taint the other dam projects under consideration for water bond funding.

As yet incomplete feasibility and environmental studies indicate that the proposed Sites reservoir in the Sacramento Valley provides more water and perhaps more tangible environmental benefits than the other proposed dam projects, but the public has not had the opportunity to review and comment on these assertions. Conservationists are particularly concerned about Sites diverting significant amounts of water from the Sacramento River and harming its ecosystems, fish and wildlife.

At a minimum, the uncertain viability of these costly dam projects should encourage the Legislature to retain a firm grip on how water bond money is spent. But this isn’t likely.

The current bond and other proposals all provide billions of dollars in dam funding through so-called continuous appropriations. This means that the Legislature will not consider the facts and then decide how best to spend bond funds for water projects in the annual budget process. Rather, an unelected board dominated by water interests will.

Ironically, Californians really need a water bond to reduce their reliance on imported water by cleaning up polluted groundwater, recycling waste water, treating stormwater runoff and increasing the efficient use of our existing water supplies by farms and cities. All these options produce a much bigger bang for the public buck than building expensive and questionable dam projects.

But the Legislature’s focus on providing billions of dollars for dubious dam projects, while ignoring their real financial and environmental risks and avoiding any responsibility for how public money will be spent, may sink the bond with the voters.