California Senate Rejects Dam Proposal

Published July 1, 2007

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) plan to build two new hydroelectric dams has foundered, at least temporarily, as the California Senate on April 24 voted against the governor’s $4 billion proposal.

Schwarzenegger has vowed to continue pursuing construction of the dams, despite Democratic opposition in the Senate and mounting backlash from environmentalist groups.

Global Warming Concerns

Schwarzenegger contends the $5.9 billion dam project will help address a number of critical issues facing Californians. Most importantly, according to Schwarzenegger, are providing secure water supplies for a growing population in the face of decreased snow pack due to global warming, while providing additional supplies of renewable energy without increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Republicans have generally supported the plan to build two hydroelectric dams and their associated reservoirs to increase California’s above-ground water supply. They and the governor note two-thirds of California residents rely on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains for drinking water. In addition, central California farmers use snowmelt to irrigate their fields.

Some scientists, including researchers at California’s Department of Water Resources, say the state’s water supply is especially vulnerable to global warming and reduced mountain snow pack.

Funding Problems

To provide partial funding for the dams, Schwarzenegger had wanted to place a $3.95 billion bond package before the voters. In order to gain Democrats’ support for the plan, the governor sweetened the pot by including $2 billion in spending on various conservation, groundwater storage, and environmental protection and restoration projects.

Even this was not enough to overcome opposition in the Democrat-led Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee. It killed the bill on a 4-3 party-line vote.

Senators cited a number of reasons for rejecting the proposal. They argue it is too costly and note that dam projects historically have been boondoggles, with taxpayers picking up the bill.

To back their position, Senate Democrats pointed out the proposed dams lack commitments from local water authorities to help pay for them. In addition, they argue California’s future water needs could be met by more conservation.

Global Warming Worry

In opposing the dam projects, environmentalists cited research indicating that, contrary to popular perception, hydroelectric projects may exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions.

Some studies have shown that, depending upon local geology, climate conditions, and dam operation, reservoirs can be net emitters of both carbon dioxide and methane. Thus, instead of reducing global warming, dams may contribute to it.

Governor Still Fighting

Schwarzenegger rejects such assertions and continues to tout the projects as reducing California’s impact on the atmosphere. More directly, the governor and his allies in the legislature seem to believe that with a population expected to grow by as much as 30 percent in the next 20 years, conservation and improved irrigation will not be enough to address the state’s need for new, reliable above-ground sources of fresh water.

From that perspective, regardless of whether the dams contribute to climate change, they are necessary to counteract the impacts on the state’s water supply resulting from anticipated global warming.

State Sen. Dennis Cogdill (R-Modesto), a sponsor of the governor’s bill, said, “SB 59 is a holistic approach to meeting the water needs of California for the coming decades. It looks at all aspects of satisfying future water needs.”

Cogdill added, “Population has doubled, and so far we have met our needs with conservation, but looking ahead, given the fact that California is growing by half to three-quarters of a million people per year, and the hydrologic changes we face with less slow-melting snowfall and more rainfall, we must find a way to capture and store water that would otherwise run into the ocean.”

Unanswered Questions

State Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) led opposition to the bill. Steinberg spokesperson Jim Evans explained why.

“There are too many unanswered environmental questions regarding this bill,” said Evans. “We have very little information on the potential benefits, yet quite a few questions regarding the potential environmental impacts of these dams.

“We need more information,” Evans added. “It would be premature to commit state funds to a project [about] which so little is known.”

H. Sterling Burnett ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.