Schwarzenegger’s True Lies About Dams and Canals

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger keeps repeating at his press conferences and meetings the big lie that no dams or water storage facilities have been constructed in California in the past 20 to 30 years.

Apparently, the Schwarzenegger administration believes in the classic propaganda technique that if a big lie is repeated enough, it will be eventually accepted as truth by the media and public. This fallacy is being used to bolster his call for a peripheral canal and more dams in California, although the truth is that several major dams and other storage facilities have been constructed during the last 30 years.

On July 14 at a town meeting in Bakersfield, the Governor stated, “Do you know that for 20 years, well, actually since the late ’70s, they have not built a dam? I mean, think about that. They have not built a dam.”

Then on Monday, July 16, the Governor discussed his “Comprehensive Water Plan” at San Luis Reservoir, repeating this false statement again. “But over the last 20 years we have not built a single major reservoir that connects to this great system here, even though we have a population growth from 20 million to 37 million people over the same period,” he said.

On July 23, Gov. Schwarzenegger toured Long Beach Aquifer to discuss his Water Plan for Southern California, yet again repeating another variation of this fallacy.

“Right now our water system is extremely vulnerable,” he stated. “For one thing, we haven’t built a major state reservoir in more than 30 years and in that time our population has grown from 20 million to 37 million. We must solve California’s water problems not only for today, but for 40 years from now.”‘

There is no doubt that the California dam building frenzy by the federal, state and regional governments of the period from 1945 through 1970 is long over, but this was because virtually all of the suitable and economically feasible on-stream dam sites already had dams built on them or were located on federally designated “wild and scenic” rivers.

In spite of what the Schwarzenegger says, a number of dams and reservoirs have been constructed in California since the late seventies, including some of the largest reservoirs in their respective regions.

The Contra Costa County Water District constructed one of the Bay Area’s largest ever reservoirs, Los Vaqueros near Livermore, during 1994-1997. The lake was filled to capacity and opened to recreation for the first time in September 2001. The lake has a capacity of 100,000 acre-feet of water now ­ and the reservoir is set for expansion in the future.

More recently, Diamond Valley Reservoir, built by the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California to improve dry year reliability, was finished in 2003. The lake, located between Temecula and Hemet off Hwy. 79 at Newport Rd. in the Domenigoni/Diamond valleys, has a capacity of 800,000 acre-feet of water and is the largest-ever reservoir constructed in Southern California.

According to MWD’s website, “This reservoir is larger than Lake Havasu and took 4 years to fill. This reservoir will hold as much water as combining Castaic Lake, Lake Mathews, Pyramid Lake, Lake Perris and Lake Skinner into one.”

This reservoir almost doubles Southern California’s surface storage capacity and secures six months of emergency storage in the event of a major earthquake.

In addition, the newest federal Central Valley Project reservoir, San Justo Reservoir, was constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of the San Felipe Division beginning in 1987. Water in San Justo comes from the massive San Luis Reservoir.

As Spreck Rosekrans of Environmental Defense points out, “Water supply development continues in California, though today’s solutions are different from those adopted during the middle of the 20th century. Today there are few practical opportunities to build new dams that would impound the natural flow of a large river. Most of California’s major rivers are either already dammed, protected by law, or too remote to be economically developed.” (See “Recently Developed Water Storage Capacity in California, Environmental Defense, April 2007).

He continues, “Innovative water managers are finding, however, that they can extend supplies in a variety of ways, including increased efficiency, recycling, local storage, groundwater management, and transfers and exchanges with other agencies that have different sources and different needs.”

Rosekranz emphasizes that since 1990, 6,200,000 acre-feet of storage have been developed at six sites alone. This storage includes the 900,000 acre-feet of off-stream storage at Los Vaqueros and Diamond Valley, combined with groundwater aquifers.

These aquifers have been developed either to serve local communities or to use as “banks” that exchange ground and surface supplies, using California’s vast network of canals, with distant communities in dry years, said Rosekrans.

Whether it was Schwarzenegger’s staff or the Governor himself who concocted these false statements about California water storage really doesn’t make any difference. However, I call on the Governor NOW to stop repeating these mistruths as justification for his mad drive to build the peripheral canal and two new reservoirs.

The two new proposed reservoirs, Sites Reservoir on the west side of the Sacramento Valley and Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River, are not considered to be economically feasible for the amount of additional water storage they would provide. “The cost of producing water at Sites and Temperance dams would be between $1,000 and $2,000 per acre foot. Who is going to buy this water at such a high price?” said John Beuttler, conservation director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

I believe that by promoting the myth that dams and water storage haven’t increased in California over the past 30 years, the Schwarzenegger administration is trying to create in the public mind the idea that water supply can be magically expanded by building two new dams and a peripheral canal. The problem isn’t that that there aren’t enough dams and water storage facilities in California ­ the problem is that virtually all of the economically feasible dam sites have already been taken and that California’s finite and fragile water resources have already been overallocated.

The governor’s call for more dams and a canal occurs at a time when the California Delta is at the worst ecological crisis in its history. Four species of pelagic (open water) species have crashed to record lows, the result of massive increases of water exports by the federal land state govnerments, the profileration of toxics in the water and the impact of invasive species. Exports from the Delta need to be reduced, not increased as the state and federal governments are proposing.

More recently, Governor Schwarzenegger and Senator Dianne Feinstein met on August 21 in a “Delta Summit” to hear presentations by California’s top water experts working to “fix” the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. “Experts and stakeholders discussed plans to improve California’s water infrastructure and fix the deteriorating Delta, which supplies clean water to 25 million people in Southern California,” according to the Governor’s office.

“Senator Feinstein and I agree that we need a long-term, sustainable Delta fix that improves conveyance, restores the ecosystem and increases water storage and conservation. We cannot wait until we have a Katrina-like disaster to attack this problem. Twenty five million Californians rely on the Delta for clean, safe water. It also irrigates hundreds of thousands of acres of Central Valley farmland and it is the backbone of California’s $32 billion agricultural industry.”

The problem with this statement is that you can’t have a “long term, sustainable Delta fix” that “improves conveyance,” “increases water storage” and restores the ecosystem at the same time, since Delta water is already overallocated. I’m glad that the Governor mentioned conservation, but so far, his administration has just paid lip service to conserving water.

Building a peripheral canal or constructing economically unfeasible dams will not provide the solution to California’s water problems. The solution is for California and the federal government to take drainage-impaired land in the San Joaquin Valley out of agricultural production and to promote innovative ways of water conservation that will allow California’s fragile water supply to serve both environmental needs and the needs of cities, farmers and industry. The state should also also move full speed ahead with building water desalinization plants in southern California that utilize the latest in technology to effectively increase the public water supply.

Arnold, when are you going to tell the truth about California water?

DAN BACHER can be reached at:


Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher