New law seen as boon for dam construction

By Debra Kahn | 01/03/2017 01:17 PM EST

A major new water law is giving hope to those who support a new age of dam building in the West, but major hurdles remain.

A major new water law is giving hope to those who support a new age of dam building in the West, but major hurdles remain.

The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (S. 612), signed last month by President Obama, contains dam-related language inserted at the last minute by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Besides tweaking the way existing dams are operated in California, the language gives potential funding and a pathway to authorization for several dams that have been under consideration in California for decades.

Backers say more storage is necessary to boost the reliability of Western water supplies. More and larger reservoirs would expand the capacity to capture and store precipitation from major storms, shoring up unstable water deliveries that depend on generous rain and snow seasons.


"Right now, the process is pretty burdensome," said Garrett Durst, a legislative assistant for Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) who worked on the bill. "We haven’t been able to do federal water supply projects … in a long time because of the way the process is currently set up."

The bill contains $335 million for new surface water storage projects across the West. The funding is created by allowing federal water contractors to pay off their debts ahead of schedule for construction of federal water-delivery projects. The bill also contains broad authority for the Interior Department to provide financial assistance "to carry out projects within any Reclamation state."

More crucial than the funding, though, is language to streamline federal approval of water storage projects, which have been largely stalled throughout the West, sometimes for decades.

Projects that could get a boost from the law include a potential spate of new and expanded dams. They would be connected to the federal Central Valley Project, the set of 20 dams and reservoirs and hundreds of miles of canals that delivers water from Northern California to farms and cities farther south.

The bill allows Interior to pay for up to half the cost of federally owned storage projects that it deems feasible, as well as up to 25 percent of the cost of state-owned projects, exempting them from normal rules that require Interior to get congressional authorization again after performing a feasibility study.

Environmentalists say the language goes too far to enable new projects to gain funding and approval without going through proper environmental vetting. Taking more water out of rivers and putting it in storage risks harming fish and other species that require river flows to maintain their habitat.

"This is a complete departure from traditional Reclamation projects, which must be authorized by Congress once the key matters are resolved and therefore known to the Congress," said Ron Stork, a senior policy advocate with Friends of the River. "In this brave new world, the concept of authorization seems not to exist. The world is owned by the secretary and the appropriations committees."

Language in the broader bill also seeks to cut strings that restrict other sources of funding for storage projects across the West. For example, it allows private contractors to spend recreation fees they collect at federal Army Corps of Engineers facilities on operations and maintenance directly, rather than requiring the funding to be appropriated by Congress.

The language also makes it easier to spread the cost of dams across multiple parties. It allows the Army Corps to convert single-purpose dams to multipurpose projects without further congressional oversight, a major change to existing law that could make it easier to find funding for dams. It also clarifies situations in which third parties can begin construction and seek reimbursement ahead of the corps’ building schedule.

But significant hurdles remain for most of the major storage projects currently on the board.

The proposal to raise Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River, for example, has an environmental impact statement from Reclamation that could be used to justify an 18.5-foot raise, increasing its capacity by 7 percent. But it is firmly opposed by state lawmakers because raising it would flood part of the McCloud River, which is protected under state law as a wild and scenic river.

The dams also face punishing economics. Temperance Flat, which would raise the Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River, would cost $2.5 billion, according to Reclamation’s most recent analysis, which would result in a cost of $212 per acre-foot for farmers and $1,305 per acre-foot for municipal and industrial customers.

Another storage project that has been in the works for decades, Sites Reservoir, is seen as more of a possibility by environmentalists because it would be located off-stream, meaning it wouldn’t sit directly on the Sacramento River but instead would divert water using canals. It would hold 1.8 million acre-feet and has bipartisan support, notably from Reps. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) and Garamendi.

Sites’ proponents were hoping the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act would contain language creating a loan guarantee program within Reclamation similar to U.S. EPA’s Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program for water infrastructure, in order to provide cheaper financing.

"We were pretty let down by this water bill," said Lewis Bair, general manager of Reclamation District 108, which provides Central Valley Project water to 48,000 acres of farmland north of Sacramento and is a member of the Sites Joint Powers Authority. Rather than federal funding, the project is looking to Proposition 1, a California voter-passed bond, to contribute as much as $2 billion of its estimated $4 billion price tag.

"The real challenge with federal investment, you may have authorization to do a million things, but you can’t hardly ever get money," Bair said. "We’ve tried to avoid federal investment because of that."