As the drought worsens, it’s only inevitable that cries for more dams become louder and more frequent. One of the latest came from the Modesto Bee’s Mike Dunbar in a May 3 editorial when he wrote,
Our best-case scenario? The tunnel plan collapses and new dams provide more water for everyone to share, even in the driest droughts.
But if dams were the solution to our water problems, we wouldn’t be suffering shortages today. According to David Carle’s Introduction to Water in California, the Smith River, in the far northwestern corner of the state, is the only undammed river in California.
Remember the controversy over New Melones Dam? Critics said it would devastate salmon runs and fisheries. Supporters said the dam’s almost two and a half million acre foot capacity would solve our water problems. Today, our salmon fisheries are dying and our water problems are worse than ever.
In recent commentary in the New York Times, Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard wrote,
Dams degrade water quality, block the movement of nutrients and sediment, destroy fish and wildlife habitats, damage coastal estuaries and in some cases rob surrounding forests of nitrogen. Reservoirs can also be significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
Chouinard is on a campaign to remove “Deadbeat Dams.” These include dams that clearly produce more problems than solutions. He’s not alone in recognizing many dams today produce more liabilities than benefits. Over eight-hundred dams have been removed around the nation in the last twenty years.
While there’s no question that we’ll always need some dams, we should now be willing to admit they’re not going to solve our water problems. In fact, more dams are almost certain to stimulate more population growth and more farming on bad soil.
Mike Dunbar is right about one thing: We should hope for the defeat of Governor Brown’s Twin Tunnels plan. Like dams, the tunnels project is an attempt to maintain and even enlarge on bad water policies of the past.
Among those bad policies, two of the worst involve water “transfers” from Northern California to poor soils in the southern San Joaquin Valley and, even worse, to fuel growth in Southern California. Increasingly toxic and saline, most soils in the southern Valley won’t sustain farming much longer.
Water shortages in Southern California have become so severe that the San Diego County Water Authority recently contracted to buy 48,000 acre feet of water from a desalination plant at $2,000 an acre foot. This is a measure that comes after exhausting water supplied from sources as far away as the Colorado River, which features some of the most famous dams in the world, including Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam.
It’s not unusual when attempts to improve on Mother Nature have unintended consequences. The mighty Colorado ran dry several years ago, resulting in destruction of a once healthy delta and dozens of species of wildlife.
Today, the San Joaquin Delta, salmon and steelhead populations, and even farming on some of the best soil in the world are threatened because of water policies based on short-sighted visions of unlimited growth. Valley citizens and California residents in general should have learned by now that dams are not the answer. Over the long term, more dams simply lead to more shortages.