Officials: Lower lake level unlikely if Auburn dam built

By: Roger Phelps, The Telegraph
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People recreating at drought-stricken Folsom Lake might wonder if a new dam upstream on the American River would worsen, improve or not affect the local lake level. The answer is simple – it depends. “That’s difficult to know,” said Ken Payne, Folsom utilities director. Some politicians, including Congressional candidate Tom McClintock, and some media editorials once again are pushing for an Auburn dam. A typical 10-year-old would be tempted to insist it’s not difficult to know effects for Folsom of an Auburn dam – dams are things that hold back water, so any new upstream dam would lower Folsom Lake. But there are dams and there are dams. A simple earthen dam is an inert object, and functions only in a manner that is simple, with effects that are clear. A modern dam, however, is a flexible instrument capable of causing a variety of effects at the will of an operator, who can release water. “If we bring in a new facility upstream, the system would be managed so Folsom’s flow was maintained,” said Michelle Light, acting publicity officer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, American River dams operator. In effect, according to bureau officials, an Auburn Dam would “keep away” water from Folsom only during years when so much water was available that a loss of some water to an Auburn Dam wouldn’t be noticeable in Folsom Lake. In normal wet seasons, Folsom Dam operators release surplus water downstream. That’s in order to keep room for coming moisture needing to be stored at Folsom to protect Rancho Cordova and Sacramento from flood. Conversely, in dry years like the last two, Folsom Lake height never reached its “flood-control-storage release level,” said Louis Moore, assistant bureau spokesman. The bureau has various responsibilities in managing water storage along a system of dams and reservoirs on the American River. One of the responsibilities is ensuring, as possible, adequate water for recreation in Folsom Lake. That responsibility would remain if and when an Auburn Dam was built. “We could hold water back, but why would we do it?” Light said. “We support a lot of recreational activities at Folsom Lake.” “It doesn’t matter which upstream reservoir catches the water,” Moore said. “It’s going to be released. Folsom is the catch basin. No one has the right to stop the flow downstream.” Considerations such as maintaining fish runs also enter into officials’ responsibilities around managing water. A court ruling now mandates that operators of Friant Dam near Fresno release additional water to restore a salmon run on the San Joaquin River. Congressional candidate Tom McClintock weighed in July 21, addressing state water officials. “Your board meets today to consider revoking permits that are necessary for proceeding with construction of the Auburn dam – I’m sure there’ll be a detailed legal discussion on both sides involving exactly what constitutes due diligence in overcoming the endless legal obstacles that have delayed this project since it was first authorized by Congress in 1965,” McClintock said. He was speaking to officials of the state Water Resources Control Board, who direct operations of the California Department of Water Resources. Three days later, a Manteca Bulletin editorial appeared, asserting a “growing water problem,” and touting an Auburn dam as the solution. While not mentioning McClintock, the semi-literate Bulletin piece noted that the “California Department of Resources [sic] offers three potential solutions – the political snake pit known as the Peripheral Canal, the long-stalled Auburn dam and raising the height of the Shasta Dam.” One reason the problem is growing, the piece states, is that “As water demands grow in Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, California will loose [sic] a portion of Colorado River water currently used in the south state.” Following a questionable assertion that “Everyone in urban water planning looks at the amount of fresh water flowing into the Bay as a waste,” the piece closes by admonishing northern Californians that they “could loose [sic] ground on all fronts, or concede the Auburn dam will provide the answer for water supplies and flood control well into the 21st century.” Light said it’s conceivable that an Auburn dam could be assigned flood-control responsibilities in a way that would lessen the Folsom Dam’s responsibility, and allow Folsom Lake to retain some water that, in a normal rainfall year, it sends downstream to maintain its flood-control-storage capacity. The Telegraph’s Roger Phelps can be reached at, or post a comment at