In California, it’s as dependable as the rainy season. Okay, more so. Whenever there’s too much water or not enough, people start talking about Auburn Dam. It’s California’s biggest dam that has never been built — and probably never will be.

Auburn Dam
An artist’s rendering of how the completed Auburn Dam would appear on the North Fork of the American River. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The latest revival occurred at a recent show-and-tell for the new spillway under construction at Folsom Dam. Congressman Tom McClintock, R-Auburn, seized the occasion — not so much for congratulations — but to decry recent releases of water from dams on the American River.

“It infuriates me that for the past three days, we have seen releases of water out of dams on the American River triple in order to meet environmental regulations that place the interests of fish above those of human beings.”

The congressman then pivoted and called for completion of Auburn Dam, a long-stagnant project on the North Fork of the American River originally green-lighted by Congress in 1965, near the end of what the late writer Marc Reisner called the “go-go years” of American dam building. McClintock’s colleague from across the aisle, Sacramento Democrat Doris Matsui, sat nearby, literally shaking her head.

McClintock told the assembled dignitaries that a brimming Auburn Lake reservoir upstream, “could fill and refill Folsom Lake nearly 2 1/2 times.” The current drought has left Folsom Lake at alarmingly low levels this spring.

Indeed, the project, designed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, would create one of the state’s biggest reservoirs, with a capacity of more than 2 million acre-feet of water, about half the volume of Shasta Lake.

Then McClintock took aim at Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to construct bypass tunnels to carry water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“Even with the inflated costs we’re seeing today,” said McClintock, “[the dam project] could be done for much less than the current proposal to build a cross-Delta facility that produces zero additional water storage.” (According to Reclamation, there hasn’t been a reliable cost update on the project since 2006.)

He went on to extoll other potential advantages, such as, “power for a million homes” and “a major new recreational resource for our region.”

ADD CAPTION (Alisha Vargas/Flickr)
Excavations remain from where engineers began laying the foundations for Auburn Dam in the 1970s. (Alisha Vargas/Flickr)

Of course, those who enjoy (or profit from) rafting and paddling the scenic, frothy reaches of the North Fork have long taken a different view of the recreational potential, as those reaches would disappear under hundreds of feet of flat water.

Auburn Dam was never completed but it was started. Reminders are still there, the most obvious being the Forresthill Bridge, a green metal and concrete ribbon that soars more than 700 feet above the American River, built to span a reservoir that never was. If you’re more ambitious and hike down into the river canyon, you can still see where it was carved out on both sides to anchor the concrete arch.

By 1975, taxpayers had already shelled out about $137 million for the project. But the following year, when a magnitude 5.7 quake occurred a little too close for comfort, Reclamation took a time-out to revisit the dam’s design and work has never resumed.

“The dam was redesigned to meet those seismic considerations,” McClintock told me in an interview after his remarks at the spillway. “So yes, that’s already been engineered around.”

“We did not go back and do a full engineering analysis,” said Drew Lessard, Reclamation’s area manager for central California, referring to an updated study by the Bureau in 2006. He says that in the late 1970s, Reclamation did “move the location slightly,” to minimize seismic impacts. Lessard says that moving forward now would require a full “reformulation study,” reassessing the project’s costs and priorities, and that such a study by itself would take years and cost millions of dollars.

“You know, that thing’s been studied over and over and over again,” said Matsui, in a separate interview. “And you know what? There’s no support for it.”

In 2008, the California State Water Resources Board revoked the water rights that had been set aside for the Bureau of Reclamation. Most water rights are a use-it-or-lose-it proposition in California, to prevent what the Board calls “cold storage,” which is to say sitting on water rights without actually using the water. Many believed that was the final nail in the project’s coffin.

Well, apparently not everybody.

An illustration from a USBR report shows the prospective size and location of Auburn Dam, compared to Folsom and Nimbus Dams, which were built. (USBR)
An illustration from a USBR report shows the prospective size and location of Auburn Dam and reservoir, compared to Folsom and Nimbus Dams, which were built. (USBR)
Auburn Dam: The Water Project That Won’t Die 7 June,2014Craig Miller

  • Corley

    The characterization “Tom McClintock, R-Auburn” is not correct. He doesn’t even live in the district, a sore subject with those of us that do. It should read “Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove.”

  • Ed Gerber

    The humor of this all is that the republicans can blame themselves for no Auburn Dam. This project was the pet of Congressman Bizz Johnson who chaired the House appropriations committee. He would have made sure the dam got built but Republican Gene Chappie defeated him and the project died.

    • Horsepuckey it was the EPA that required an EIR. WTF, get your stuff together

    • IndigoRed

      Hogwash. Gene Chappie had nothing to do with the halting of construction.
      Pres. Carter, environmental groups, and Sacramento County has done more to stop the dam than anything or anyone.

      • Ed Gerber

        Sorry but you missed the point- Bizz had clout and would have forced the project thru over the objections of Carter and others- As Chair of the House Approriations Comm he had huge clout. Chappie came along as a republican in a Demo controlled house. I knew and liked Gene but he had no clout and the Demo’s weren’t going to give him the project. His sucessor Doolittle was approriately named- do little.

  • trashtsar

    As I recall from my undergraduate Geologic Hazards class, there is a Holocene-era fault running right through the base of this proposed dam. My instructor found evidence of the fault while working on the project. Probably a good thing that it was never built!

    • I don’t know where you live but I do in Grass Valley and the foundation is in place.
      I don’t know your background but I am a General Engineering Contractor in California licensed to build airports. dams and highways.
      What are you or your instructor licensed to do or unlicensed to issue unsubstantiated hot air?
      There was extensive seismic testing done prior to the placement of the dam’s foundations and existing ground supporting the foundations is granite.
      Have you reviewed previous evaluations, soils reports. seismic reports approved prior to the placement of the footings and the structural evaluations?
      I doubt you have but shoot your mouth off “As I recall from my undergraduate Geologic Hazards class, there is a
      Holocene-era fault running right through the base of this proposed dam”.
      Did you ever graduate or is your statement still hot air?

      • trashtsar

        My, my, so testy!

        My instructor those 35 years ago was/is a geologist with a Phd from Stanford who worked on the dam project and identified the fault.

        The Wikipedia entry for “Auburn Dam” says, in part,

        “Slated to be completed in the 1970s by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, at a height of 685 feet (209 m) the concrete arch-gravity dam was to be the largest three-centered thin arch dam in the world…Proposals and studies for the dam emerged in the late 1960s, and construction work commenced in 1968…Following a nearby earthquake and the discovery of a seismic fault that underlay the dam site, work on the project was halted for fears that the dam’s design would not allow it to survive a major quake on the same fault zone.”

        Pretty much what the good Doctor told us in geology class.

  • Mr, Bodacious Big Tony my English Bulldog states the Tom McClintock lives in Granite Bay but who really cares as Obama was born in Africa with an African father and a mother from Kansas and is not a citizen so why pick fly poop out of salt?

  • You guys don’t understand, who pays the interest on the bonds while the unapproved bonds and the infrastructure approved by the bonds languishes in legislature while waiting to be approved? Craig, do you have 1/2 a brain?

  • Dave ward

    We haven’t built a new dam in ca for over thirty years. This dam has been approved let’s build it we the people and the fish need the water. Just think what it would be like if we didn’t have the dams we have now. Thank God that our for fathers were thinking about future generations of people and fish. I say let’s build it now we have already had our studies. Please brothers and sister pray with me to our Lord Jesus that we getter done ASAP. Thank u all for ur concern. Signed Dave Ward a faithful follower of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Craig Miller

Craig is KQED’s science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station’s award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor