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Auburn Dam: History & Consequences

Auburn Dam: Our Future,

Roger Canfield, Auburn Dam Council,

S AC R A M E N T O  H I S T O R Y : J OU R N A L  of T H E  S A C R A M E N T O  C O U N T Y  H I S T O R I C A L  S O C I E T Y, VOL. VI , NO. 1-4 2006, 311.

“. . . [S]ome were drowned in their beds . . .”

Diary of Dr. John F. Morse, 1850 Sacramento Flood1

History: Battling the Inland Sea

The inhabitants of the Sacramento-American River region have battled an inland sea2 for a century-and-a-half. At times they’ve been forced to evacuate,
at others to live surrounded by rising waters. In 1862 Governor Leland Stanford was even rowed to his swearing-in ceremony at the State Capitol. Repairing levee breaks, which happens
eventually to all levees, was a constant task. Will Green, a newspaperman from Colusa, saw that building higher levees and dredging3 narrow river channels would never be enough to stop the next
flood. Finally, the State of California and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) built bypasses to divert the deluges and dams to regulate river flows. A dam at Auburn was planned from the
1920s through 1998.4

The history of the Sacramento region is flooding and close calls.5 Every ten years or so Sacramento flirts with catastrophe. Farms and rural areas go under, but Sacramento escapes by
days, hoursand inches. Thank to the bypasses and yes, the dams. Folsom, Shasta, and Oroville Dams averted major floods in 1956, 1964, 1986, 1995 and 1997.6

Therefore, the question is not if, but when the next great flood strikes the region.

E D I T O R ’S I N T R O D U C T I O N

The Sacramento County Historical Society, through its membership, programs, and SACRAMENTO HISTORY JOURNAL, strives to raise public awareness of local history. Vital issues regularly emerge requiring discussion, and sometimes, debate. The purpose of the following forum is to provide a place for dialogue, in an unedited commentary format for our reader’s consideration.

The Society takes no position on this issue, but rather serves as a conduit of ideas and opinions. We invited representatives of the Auburn Dam Council and Protect American River Canyons to articulate why a dam built on the North Fork of the American River would or would not serve the best interests in the region.

The Present: Worst Flood Protection in America

Today Sacramento has the worst flood protection of any metropolis in the nation – less protection than a one-in-100 risk of flooding every year. Every major Mississippi River city, except New Orleans, and those on the Ohio River have 500-year or better flood protection. The Big Easy had 250-year protection before Hurricane Katrina.7 The Netherlands and Japan design theirflood protection for 10,000-years. Gen. Gerald E. Galloway, former Executive Director of the Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee, who led a Clinton White House study in 1993, recommended a 500-year standard for major urban areas.
At 60, 78, or 100-year protection, Sacramento has no standard whatsoever.

Near Future: Half Measures To Disaster

So what is to be done? Buy flood insurance to “replace the irreplaceable” and prepare to evacuate?8 Katrina redux? The raising of Folsom Dam9 and fortifying miles of forever-leaking levees just might provide one-in-200 protection. Since New Orleans had 250-year protection, these are less than half-measures, to be completed ten years from now. Certainly levee repairs, flood insurance and evacuation plans are prudent and necessary, but ultimately insufficient.

We face an “absolute certainty of eventual catastrophic flooding.”10


Legacy: Catastrophe for Posterity?

In Sacramento, a one-in-200-year flood – a Katrina Lite – would submerge 104,000 homes; 3,820 commercial buildings; 573 industrial sites and 212,000 acres of land. It would cost $14 billion in damages. At risk are $47 billion in ever
increasing property values, including billions of dollars in new downtown office buildings being constructed and planned. How deep will the water be in Natomas, the Pocket, Campus Commons, downtown, midtown? What about in Land Park, Curtis Park, east Sacramento, Del Paso Heights, and homes along the American River to the east? Try 102 square miles under eleven feet of water, with 157,000 people facing six feet and an additional 118,000 people dealing with ten
feet of unwanted water. Some 63,800 structures within eighty-five square miles would be destroyed. In 2000 the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA) estimated 300,000 jobless for a year, losing $10 billion in income.11 About five hundred people would drown, all from Katrina Lite.

Auburn Dam: Solution That May Not Be Spoken

The controversial Auburn Dam would provide about a one-in-500 risk according to the Corps,12 the California Department of Water Resources (Water Resources),13 and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation).14 It is indisputable that an Auburn Dam solves the risk of a 250-to 500-year flood.15 The Auburn Dam is vital for the safety of our families. Decades of studies have also shown Auburn’s other benefits – water supplies, pollution-free electricity, environmental enhancements, and expanded recreation.

The People’s Choice: Auburn Dam

The voters support the building of a dam. In 1990, 59 percent favored Measure T directing the Sacramento Board of Supervisors to finance a multipurpose dam and 82 percent supported taxes on themselves to improve flood protection. The voters got neither.16 The American River Authority (ARA), a joint powers agency of San Joaquin, El Dorado and Placer County agencies,17 polled Sacramento voters in December 2005. Told that the dam would provide 500-year flood protection and water for drinking, wildlife, electricity and recreation, 62 percent supported an Auburn Dam. Only 25 percent opposed.18 The Auburn Dam Council19 conducted surveys of voters in El Dorado, Placer and Sacramento with 58, 59, and 62 percent supporting it respectively.20

Many elected officials at the state and federal level and their predecessors have supported the Auburn Dam: U.S. Congressmen Ose, Lungren, Engle, Johnson, Pombo, Herger, and Doolittle; California State Assemblymen Niello, Leslie, Richter, Nakanishi, Gaines, Bowler, Oller, Knowles, LaMalfa, Pescetti; and California State Senators Cox, Leslie, Doolittle. U.S. Congressman John T. Doolittle has led the cause in good times and bad. Anthony Pescetti chairs the Auburn Dam Council.

However, a passionate minority has vetoed public safety due to their concerns about the environment, earthquakes, costs and water.21


Environment: Fish, Foul and Human

The 2005 ARA poll determined respondents’ top issue to be “protecting our water supply from pollution and other contamination,” at 65 percent. Hurricane Katrina’s waters reeked with toxic chemicals, raw sewage and carcasses, all while
washing away wildlife habitat.22

“Katrina caused . . . the largest single devastation of fish and wildlife since the Exxon Valdez.”23

This is environmental destruction, all preventable. In 1982, New Orleans rejected a $757 million Lake Pontchartrain hurricane barrier. The barrier would have saved New Orleans and its environment.24 Environmentally, the Auburn Dam
would flood a canyon, but it builds a beautiful mountain lake, 150 miles of trails and up to 200 campsites. All oak, chaparral, pine forest and riverine habitat lost under the lake will be replaced. The American River Parkway Preservation Society (ARPPS) reports that Auburn Dam’s controlled water flows and temperature will benefit fall run salmon and the human beings who recreate in the parkway. Retaining up to 2.7 million25 acre-feet of run-off annually in the watershed provides adequate flow of high quality water for the salmon and protects the physical integrity of the American River Parkway for migratory and resident wildlife and diverse natural vegetation.26


Earthquakes: A Fear that Does Not Go Away

After the Oroville Dam area experienced a 5.7 magnitude quake in 1975, construction was halted and exhaustive earthquake fault studies begun. Oroville had recent quakes nearby, but Auburn had not. Michael Shaeffer, a retired Reclamation engineer, recently reviewed the many quake studies.27 He admitted that a computer model, a fantasy game, did project a horrible, disappearing dam inundating Sacramento. Scary. Wendel Carlson, a retired
Reclamation geologist, who wrote a summary report on all these studies, told the author that the U.S. Geological Survey team, oft cited by dam opponents, based their analysis on drive-by observations. They did not use the real world data in the complete studies. Their computer model generated its own “data,” which was not based on empirical observations. Therefore, Shaeffer calls the computer model unrealistic. In contrast, Reclamation’s studies conducted at the actual
dam site, found in more than twenty volumes, are based upon 19,807 feet of core samples and twenty miles of trenches. The results from real data found the chances of an earthquake at the site are infinitely small, perhaps as little as one-in-100-million years, an event less probable than falling out of your bed in the morning.

As we have seen, the odds of a devastating flood in the next ten years are far, far greater.28 Cecil Andrus, President Carter’s Secretary of Interior agreed that a safe dam could be built.29 On January 30, 2007, the latest Reclamation report said there was a “high degree of certainty that a dam . . . can safely be constructed.”30

Dam-induced earthquakes? Studies of all of California’s dam sites found that no quakes could be exclusively attributed to dams. It is wiser to plan for a virtual certainty than a scary computer game.
Still planning for the worst, a one hundred million year quake, Shaeffer reminds us that the Auburn dam is designed for a “maximum probable event,” a magnitude 6.5 on the logarithmic Richter scale. The Oroville quake was 5.7. A 6.5 quake is eighty times the magnitude of the Oroville quake.

Cost: What’s a Dam Worth?

An Auburn Dam costing $10 billion31 because of a thirty year delay will surely not get any cheaper, nor will the price of clean water and pollution-free electricity. The sale of water and electricity, both in short supply in California, will pay
for the Auburn Dam numerous times over. Oroville and Folsom dams were once said to be too costly; they are now long paid off. Water and electricity sales will keep on giving. Reclamation estimates that the hydropower alone will produce $53 to $113 million annually.32 Moreover, the private Auburn Dam Council has for years discussed local cost/bond/revenue sharing to build and manage the dam. In September 1988 the ARA informed Reclamation that it could contribute $700 million to cost-share water and power costs for the 2.3 million acre-feet multipurpose dam.33 The alternative flood solutions, raising Folsom Dam and fixing levees, have costs not of $3 billion or $5 billion, but of $6 billion to $12 billion. Building Auburn Dam will reduce the frequency of levee repairs, avoid costs of $14 to $30 billion in actual flood damages, and protect against hundred-million-dollar lawsuits.34 Therefore, the costs of these half-measures are tens of billions more than building a dam at Auburn.


Water: The Great Thirst in Our Future

We have droughts, too. Auburn would hold 2.3 million acre-feet of water storage and allow Folsom to hold no less than 800,000 acre-feet most of the year. The annual yields35 will be 750,000 acre-feet 80 percent of the time and 300,000
acre-feet in the driest years. Auburn’s capacity and yield is far larger than any other surface storage project in California, including the proposed Sites (1.8 and 250-350,000) and Temperance (1.3 and 165,000) reservoirs, and raising Shasta (636,000). Every study that includes Auburn shows it has the highest level of surface water storage. It is said that Auburn water will be expensive. It will be cheap compared to desalination or recycled water, the oft-proffered

Conservation? Recycling? The entire Water Resource’s urban conservation plan might save 1.2 million to 3.1 million acre-feet of water.36 Of course, driving agriculture out of rural California does provide large yields of water, in much the same way that bank robbery has high short-term yields.

Electricity: Summer in the City

Auburn’s 800 megawatts37 of pollution-free hydroelectric power will be more reliable than solar and wind, which work only when the sun shines or the wind blows. That’s why the Sacramento Municipal Utility District is quietly expanding its own extensive hydro capacity by building a brand new 400-megawatt hydro project at Iowa Hill along the American River. That’s only a few miles from where Auburn Dam generators might be built and where the Middle Fork project has been delivering electricity and revenues for nearly fifty years.

People and growth are not going away. Every federal census and estimate of the California Department of Finance proves it. Do not build it, and they will still come.

Auburn Dam: Build it Now or Build it Later

Governor Schwarzenegger has declared a levee emergency; Governor Davis oversaw power blackouts. Some future governor will have a water supply emergency. The answer is Auburn Dam. Even levee patches, which force grout down eighty feet, provide only a fraction of Auburn’s 500-year flood protection, none of its 2.3 million acre-feet of water, and none of its 800 megawatthours of electricity.38

Public officials have a moral obligation to protect the public’s safety from floods, droughts and blackouts. That is the mandate. Our elected representatives will move forward on an Auburn Dam, or expect their legacy to be the Great Flood,
the Great Thirst, and the Great Blackout.

The Auburn Dam Council has worked for nearly fifty years to support the Auburn Dam. It meets every first Monday morning of the month at 7:00 A.M. at Coco’s at Madison and Sunrise in Fair Oaks. For more information, please visit



1. Peter J. Hayes, ed., The Lower American River: Prehistory to Parkway (Carmichael, CA: American River Natural History Association, 2005), 63.

2. Robert Kelly, Battling the Inland Sea: American Political Culture, Public Policy, and the Sacramento
, 1850-1986, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989).

3. In recent times the Sacramento River has not been
adequately dredged, allowing silt, brush, trees and debris to clog up channels.
This benefits wildlife and backs up floodwaters.

4.  See the California Department of Water Resources’ Bulletin 160-98,
the last update to the California Water Plan, recommending the Auburn Dam and
the latest Bulletin 160-05, which does not. Both are accessible at
www.waterplan.water.ca.gov/previous/b160-98/TOC.cfm and www.waterplan.water.ca.gov/cwpu2005/index.cfm.
5. 1850, 1852, 1853, 1861,1862, 1867, 1875, 1878, 1902,
1907, 1908, 1909, 1951, 1956, 1964, 1986, 1997; Hayes, 63-74; Kelly; Sacramento
Area Flood Control Agency, www.safca.org/floodRisk/index.html.

6. www.safca.org

7. U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) website,

8. David H. Lukenbill, “The American River Parkway:
Protecting its Integrity and Providing Water for the River Running Through It,
A Report on the Auburn Dam Policy Environment” (Sacramento, CA: American River
Parkway Preservation Society, September 24, 2006), 18. Report is accessible at

9. Shasta Dam was engineered to be raised later, Folsom Dam
was not. Folsom was engineered to be protected by a dam at Auburn.

10. Lukenbill, 18.

11. Mike McCarthy, “Natomas residents challenge Greenbrier:
Want levee fixed before 3,450 homes built,” Sacramento
Business Journal
, September 1, 2006. Article is accessible at http://sacramento.bizjournals.com/sacramento/stories/2006/

12. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Sacramento District,
“American River Watershed Project, California. Part 1: Main Report. Part 2:
Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report.
Supplemental Information Report,” March 1996. The 250-foot earth-filled
cofferdam at the shuttered construction site gave way to the rapidly rising
North Fork of the American River during the flood of February 1986, as captured
by Sacramento Bee photographer Morgan Ong. SACRAMENTO ARCHIVES & MUSEUM
COLLECTION CENTER Sacramento Bee Collection Morgan Ong 2-18-1986

13. California Department of Water Resources, “Summary Paper
for American River Watershed Project and the American River Water Resources
Investigation,” (Sacramento: March 1996), 5, 18, 24.

14. The design criteria for Water Resources is the “Maximum
Probable Flood,” while the Corps is the “Standard Project Flood.” Recently
released information shows Auburn Dam protection varying by means of operations
from 385-500 year protection. It is only 195 year protection if the dam is NOT
operated as a flood control facility. See U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, “The
Auburn-Folsom South Unit, Special Report, Benefit and Cost Estimate,” December
2006, TS-6.

15. Interviews with Stein Buer, Executive Director,
Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency; Ricardo Pineda, Chief of California Department
of Water Resource’s Floodplain Management Branch; and Peter D. Rabbon, General
Manager, California State Reclamation Board.

16. Californians voted for “water” bonds delivering mostly
environmental and local pork; CALFED, a state-federal consortium, has never
delivered on its promises of surface water storage.

17. www.americanriverauthority.org.

18. Poll results accessible at

19. www.auburndamcouncil.org.

20. Poll results accessible at

21. At the Sacramento Water Forum, CALFED, and the
California Department of Water Resources, the Auburn Dam is verboten, or
off-limits. The pressure exerted on public officials by the threats of
environmental lawsuits related to the dam makes even discussions on the topic

22. CNN, “Officials: Chemicals bigger concern than cholera,”
September 7, 2005. Article is accessible at www.cnn.com/2005/HEALTH/09/06/katrina.water/index.html.

23. James L. Cummings, Mississippi Fish and Wildlife
Foundation, October 7, 2005, House, Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.
Testimony accessible at

24. Ralph Vartabedian and Peter Pae, “A Barrier That Could
Have Been,” Los Angeles Times September 9, 2005, A1 (quoting former U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers chief counsel Joseph Towers). See also Michael Tremoglie,
“New Orleans: A Green Genocide,” Frontpagemag.com September 8, 2005 (quoting
Gregory Stone, the Director of the Coastal Studies Institute of Louisiana State
University), accessible at

25. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, “The Auburn-Folsom South
Unit, Special Report, Benefit and Cost Estimate,” December 2006, TS-4. The
report cites an average of 1,363,000 acre feet. Report accessible at

26. Lukenbill, 43.

27. Lukenbill, 52-55.

28. Dirt, determined to be 100 million year old, was found
undisturbed at nearby fault lines; see the previous footnote for sources of
geologic studies.

29. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and California Department of
Water Resources, “Options for the Auburn-Folsom South Unit, Joint State-Federal
Auburn Dam Task Force,” June 1984, 10.

30. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, “The Auburn-Folsom South
Unit, Special Report, Benefit and Cost Estimate,” December 2006, TS-4.

31. Ibid, TS-10-11. The report calculates $5.4 billion to
construct the dam, power plant, transmission lines and roads, but adds $3.95 billion
for environmental mitigation because “[e]nvironmental compliance requirements
are substantially different today.”

32. Ibid, TS-5.

33. According to the Sacramento Taxpayers League and the
National Tax Limitation Committee, the revenues from water, electricity, and
recreation will pay off the Auburn Dam’s bonds, as they did the Shasta,
Oroville and Folsom dams. Similarly, along the Middle Fork of the American
River sales of hydroelectric power are paying off bonds and will provide $30-100
million in revenues years after bond payoff in 2013. The ARA’s joint powers
authority, subject to oversight, has the combined full faith, credit, bonding
authority, and resources of its creators – the counties of San Joaquin, El
Dorado and Placer and the water agencies of Placer and El Dorado.

34. In the summer of 2006, the State of California paid $428
million to 3,000 Yuba County residents whose property was damaged after levees
failed during the 1986 flood in northern California. The courts determined the
State was ultimately responsible for the damages caused by broken and neglected

35. U.S. Representative John T. Doolittle (R-CA) website,

36. California Department of Water Resources, California
Water Plan Update, Bulletin 160-05, volume 2 chapter 22; available at
www.waterplan.water.ca.gov/cwpu2005/index.cfm. There is every reason to believe
that these figures were inflated by political pressure to justify not building
any more dams in California. The author sat through two and half years of
meetings of the advisory board for the water plan.

37. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, “The Auburn-Folsom South
Unit, Special Report, Benefit and Cost Estimate,” December 2006, TS-4.

38. Up until 1998, the Auburn Dam was an integral part of
every five year California Water Plan. Bulletin 160-98 touted its flood, water,
electric, and recreation benefits.

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