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Governor to push for new dams despite long-standing resistance by Michael Gardner COPLEY NEWS SERVICE, SignonSanDiego.com
January 7, 2007 SACRAMENTO – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to draw on his popular campaign against global warming to promote something not so popular among environmentalists – building new dams in California.

His strategy will attempt to capitalize on fears that climatic disruptions linked to global warming could take a toll on fish and wildlife, as well as increase flood risks and reduce overall water supplies for a growing state.

To guard against those threats, Schwarzenegger will aggressively pursue at least one, and possibly two new reservoirs as part of his 2007 agenda. The combined price tag could be as much as $3.7 billion for the dams proposed near Sacramento and Fresno.

“Climate change is a big issue for the environmental community,” said Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources. “The challenge will be talking to them about how surface storage could be managed to ameliorate the impacts.”

PEGGY PEATTIE / Union-Tribune The state hasn't constructed a big reservoir, like the Metropolitan Water District-built Diamond Valley Lake near Temecula, since 1974.

A challenge indeed – in and outside of the Legislature. “We want to make sure this isn't just a cynical way to get public subsidies for projects that make no sense,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

Schwarzenegger's proposal, which may be outlined in his State of the State address Tuesday, is expected to take a comprehensive approach to water supply, including storing more underground, investing in recycling and encouraging stricter conservation.

The governor also may add another controversial project to his water policy agenda – a canal to move supplies south. A new conveyance option is seen as a potential safeguard in case disaster disrupts deliveries through the Sacramento Delta, a 1,100-mile maze of waterways that carries two-thirds of the state's drinking water. Voters resoundingly rejected a similar project, the Peripheral Canal, in 1982 and the canal has been political poison ever since.

Appearing via satellite before a friendly crowd of farmers and agribusiness executives, Schwarzenegger pledged in early December to pursue both projects this year as part of an aggressive public works agenda.

“Even though I want more infrastructure and to have more bonds approved, it would never happen unless above-the-ground storage is part of this package and unless we have conveyance,” he said. Scientists say carbon dioxide emissions, mostly from cars and industry-burning fossil fuels, are mostly responsible for the global warming phenomenon. As the Earth's atmosphere warms, California's top climatologists warn, the mountain snowpack will be reduced and melt more quickly. At lower elevations, storms will bring much more rain than snow, they predict.

With the current rate of warming, California could lose 5 percent of its snowpack by 2030, 33 percent by 2060 and 50 percent by 2090, according to state projections.

Californians count on the annual snowpack for at least a third of their water supply. The rest comes from the Colorado River, rain, reservoirs and underground aquifers.

The first snow survey this season produced disappointing results, with the state average at 59 percent of normal. But winter is just getting under way in the Sierra.

The state has not constructed a large reservoir since 1974, with the opening of the 127,000-acre-foot Lake Perris in Riverside County. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California built Diamond Valley Lake, an 800,000-acre-foot reservoir near Temecula. In San Diego County, the water authority filled the small, 24,000-acre-foot Olivenhain Reservoir just west of Escondido in 2003 at a cost of $200 million. (An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, enough water to meet the needs of two average households for a year.) Environmentalists and leading Democrats say global warming is being used as an excuse – not a reason – to pour concrete.

Jason Barbose, who tracks global warming issues for Environment California, advised Schwarzenegger to stay focused on prevention.

“We don't want to be put in a position of throwing up our arms and saying global warming is inevitable, the loss of snowpack is inevitable, so we have to build reservoirs,” Barbose said.

Snow, the governor's water chief, said the administration is taking a comprehensive view that will include promoting conservation and storing more water underground. The administration has $1 billion to spend on improving water quality and increasing supplies over the next five years, he said.

But a serious look at additional storage must be included in any strategy, Snow said. New reservoirs have been part of previously approved, long-range water plans for the better part of two decades, and millions of dollars have been spent on studies. “It's the other piece of the puzzle,” Snow said. “All we're saying right now is let's complete the puzzle.”

But given steadfast resistance to reservoirs, what has changed to convince water planners that this may be the year?

“There's a much better understanding of climate change and how it may affect water resources,” Snow said. “Many in the environmental community see the benefits of managing your storage to deal with climate change issues. What they may need to be convinced of is that you actually have to add storage to do that.”

Barry Nelson, a water specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, sees another agenda.

“It's agriculture. They're hoping the taxpayers will build them another billion-dollar handout,” Nelson said.

Nelson said that environmentalists have received too much blame for stalling reservoirs. Major urban water agencies have not lined up with signed checks either, he said.

“Water users don't believe it pencils out,” Nelson said. “Surface storage is still going to be prohibitively expensive.”

Despite repeated efforts, Schwarzenegger has been unable to persuade water agencies to agree to higher fees for other projects – much less reservoirs.

Snow said the governor will insist on a cost-sharing arrangement with users before the state commits billions. “We shouldn't be subsidizing water,” he said. “Those that get direct benefit from the facilities should be willing to pay.”

The San Diego County Water Authority would consider chipping in, but only if ratepayers see a direct benefit, said James Bond, a board member.

“Sure, it's time for us to look at storage, but in a thoughtful and practical way,” he said. “It's not the answer. It's part of the solution.”

The debate will spill back to the Legislature, where Republicans are demanding a bond that includes money for actual construction instead of what they consider appeasement funding for more studies.

Assembly Republicans temporarily held up last year's massive public works package over the absence of funding for reservoirs. Democrats refused to give in, however.

“Just like our highways, we have to invest in our water infrastructure,” GOP Leader Mike Villines of Fresno said recently. “We cannot conserve our way to growing the size of Long Beach every year. It's not going to happen.”

Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, was an ally of the Republican governor on several issues last year, including the historic bill targeting global warming and the public works bond package. But he draws the line at building dams.

“Democrats don't support water storage,” Núñez said Wednesday, flatly dismissing any such proposal. “I learned that last year.”

The two leading locations under consideration could store a combined 3 million acre-feet, enough for 6 million households a year. However, the reservoirs would have to include flood control space and hold water for environmental uses, such as flows for fish migration.

The proposed Sites Reservoir, which would be off-stream, is about 60 miles northwest of Sacramento. The reservoir would be filled by running a 16-mile pipeline from the Sacramento River.

The proposed Temperance Flat project would stretch a dam across the San Joaquin River, just above Millerton Lake outside Fresno.

Schwarzenegger said he doesn't have a favorite.

“Whichever one comes in first and has all the approvals, let's build it,” he said last spring.


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