That dam proposal

Like some pesky mosquito that just won’t go away, plans for building a major dam across the American River at Auburn are back in the air again this summer. Local Congressman John Doolittle, R-Roseville, is pushing for renewed discussion of his pet project, and if we’re not careful, his efforts are going to stall much-needed progress in Sacramento’s flood-control efforts.

If you’re like most sensible people, you assumed the Auburn dam was finally dead following the historic 2003 agreement between Doolittle and the late Congressman Robert Matsui, D-Sacramento. For decades, Doolittle had pushed for the project, arguing that it could save Sacramento from a catastrophic flood, while opponents pointed to environmental problems and charged that Doolittle was only interested in the economic benefits the dam would bring to his district. Meanwhile, Doolittle’s insistence on promoting the Auburn dam blocked progress on other much-needed, less-costly flood-control measures advocated by Matsui and others.

Two years ago, Doolittle and Matsui finally reached a compromise, agreeing to budget $214 million to upgrade Folsom Dam and shore up the levee system downstream, thus providing the Sacramento area with much-improved flood protection without spending the billions it would cost to construct a dam. It seemed as if the decades of bitter squabbling had finally come to a reasonably happy ending.

All that changed just a few weeks ago, when the Army Corps of Engineers revealed that the flood-control upgrades in the 2003 plan will cost roughly double the original estimates, and Doolittle seized on the news to revive talk of an Auburn dam. Together with fellow Congressman Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, he’s calling for a new feasibility study. Rather than find a way to come up with an additional $200 million for the 2003 compromise plan, Doolittle would like taxpayers to consider shelling out an estimated $3 billion or more to build his pet project.

The idea simply doesn’t make sense. Congress has already shown its unwillingness to back an Auburn dam, twice denying funding for the project, and the state just doesn’t have the money to go it alone. And, as if the funding weren’t problematic enough, there are important safety questions. Seismologists have warned that the dam would sit near an earthquake fault line, and there’s no telling what the added pressure of 2.3 million acre-feet of water behind the dam might do. On top of it all, an Auburn dam would destroy a thriving ecosystem and one of the region’s most popular natural resources, the Auburn State Recreation Area, which is used by thousands of hikers, whitewater rafters and campers each year.

It’s time for Doolittle to face the facts. The Auburn dam is dead, and resurrecting the idea is only going to make it more difficult to find funding for the less-costly flood-control upgrades he agreed to support in 2003. We urge Doris Matsui, who succeeded in winning her husband’s congressional seat following his death early this year, and California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to stop Doolittle’s attempts to reopen the Auburn-dam issue.