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Dammed Crazy: What Do California's Water Woes Teach Us?

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California is schizophrenic
when it comes to water.

In the past week, we
Californians have been bombarded with news about our troubled water system,
good and bad.

The most encouraging
news comes from the northern part of the state, where a deal has finally been
struck to remove four very destructive dams on the Klamath.
The river once supported the state’s second biggest salmon run. This will be
the world’s biggest dam-removal project.

Just days before, the
San Francisco Chronicle reported on the brewing water war over the Governor’s
plans to spend $3.7 billion to build new dams
California already has more than 1,000 dams, many of which – like those on the
Klamath – are at the heart of our current problems with dying deltas, sinking
land, costly levee repairs, and devastated fisheries.

Water conservation
expert Peter Gleick says the proposed new dams will bring only a marginal
improvement in water reliability, and aren’t worth the economic and
environmental costs. His Pacific Institute has produced plans for saving large
amounts of water in agriculture and cities,
which would make the dams unnecessary.

Meanwhile, in an effort to resurrect California's second largest river system,
the Feds will soon begin releasing more water out of the Friant Dam into the parched San Joaquin River and
its dying delta. The project is an experiment in the new science of “environmental
from dams, and the goal here is to try to restore another major
fishery that dried up 60 years ago. At the same time, in hearings described by
the San Francisco Chronicle as resembling the water wars of the 1920s, Senator
Dianne Feinstein called for a National Academy of Science study of federal
water rulings aimed at saving the fisheries of the San Joaquin, and possibly suspending the Endangered Species Act during the current drought. 

It almost makes our
national health care debate look reasoned. 

The world has
long looked to California's massively engineered water
system as "advanced" and worth emulating. "Where would you
be without all your dams?" I was asked on my first trip to South Africa,
which then was building a huge dam system to transfer water from its poor,
landlocked neighbor of Lesotho. It's been a familiar refrain in my years of
travel to various African nations for International Rivers, where we team up with
people working to save their rivers and protect their communities from big

It’s stating the
obvious, but Africa isn't California. Its people are more dispersed, making
huge, centralized systems for water and energy impractical. The overall poverty
that afflicts the place makes a “command and control” water system based on
costly big dams and canals out of reach.

Even if poor nations in
Africa or elsewhere had the money to build massive water-engineering systems
like California’s, the cost of pouring the concrete is just the beginning, as
our tattered system shows. Embroiled in its worst economic crisis since the
Great Depression, California is now facing a $200 million bill for its share of
the Klamath dam removal, and $4.5 billion to restore unsafe levees and
flood-control systems
  – not to mention the billions to build
the new dams the governor wants. Losses to California’s commercial and recreational salmon
fishery averaged $61 million a year in recent years; an unknown number of fishermen have permanently
lost their livelihoods.

Lurking in a scary
closet is the nightmare scenario: the unfathomable costs of a major dam failure
in the event of a major earthquake of climate-induced “super flood.” With a
huge portion of the state’s residents living in floodplains (many of which have
sunk below sea level thanks to all those dams and levees, which hold back
land-replenishing sediments), such a disaster could cost in the billions if not

California has better
lessons to share with the world – lessons that are especially apt for droughty
parts of the world, like Africa. Instead of building big new hydropower dams that squander our rivers, we’ve embraced
energy efficiency
in a big way, and have recently adopted the most ambitious
efficiency plan in nation
(we already rank as one of the world’s
most efficient energy economies). And as the Klamath story shows, we’re soon to
be a world leader in dam decommissioning as well.

We’ve also made big
strides in implementing water conservation on farms and in cities, but have
much more to do here. As many have pointed out, current plans for solving the
water-supply crisis rely too much on outdated ideas. 

Poorer nations looking
to the Golden State for ideas in dealing with vexing water problems should
leapfrog over our tarnished, high-cost model of destroyed rivers, crumbling
infrastructure, and contentious solutions to the mess. Instead, they should
take the best of the California model: growing efficiency in water and energy
use, removing the most destructive dams, and trying to bring back species from
the brink. Developing countries will be better prepared for a changing climate if they look to the California Dream rather than the California Nightmare in planning their water-management futures.


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