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A lavishly produced text-and-photos portrait of San Francisco Bay, reviewed by Joe Eaton in the Faultline Bookstore.

   dam drawing

Artist's conception, a functioning Auburn Dam

American River to Return to Natural Channel at Auburn Dam

Like most Western states, California has its share of ghost towns. Some are mere whispers of broken stone and weathered planks; others are so well-preserved that they seem to have been abandoned only yesterday. Springing into existence nearly overnight at the site of gold or silver strikes, many vanished almost as quickly when their founders' dreams of permanence and prosperity failed to materialize.

The ghosts of unrealized dreams do not always take the shape of towns. In a canyon southeast of the Gold Rush town of Auburn lies a different kind of historical phantom, one that has haunted California's political establishment for nearly four decades.

The American River canyon is home to the ghost of a great dam, one of the last and most ambitious elements of a federal public-works campaign that forever changed the face of the American West. Like the fragments of towns and mining camps abandoned near exhausted ore deposits, the Auburn Dam construction site represents a moment frozen in time and a remnant of an era characterized by attitudes and values different from those of the present.

Within the next few months, the powerful federal agency that designed Auburn Dam will symbolically turn its back on one of the most ambitious structures it ever planned to build. The US Bureau of Reclamation, responsible for drowning and diverting more rivers in the West than any other government agency, will instead begin bringing one back to life.

"From a lawyerly perspective, it hasn't changed the circumstances," Ron Stork, a senior policy advocate for Friends of the River, said of the bureau's decision. "From a political symbolism standpoint, it's enormously important."

The story of Auburn Dam is more than just the story of a single public-works project. In many ways, the dam's ambitious planning, aborted construction and, now, all-but-final abandonment is the history of Western water development in microcosm. Past and present meet on the floor of the American River canyon, the dam's construction site straddling the precise moment in time when unquestioned faith in American technological might faltered in the face of a new regard for the integrity of the natural landscape.

As originally envisioned, Auburn Dam was intended to correct a mistake made more than 100 years earlier and compounded by a long series of dubious decisions by politicians, community planners and land speculators.

In 1839, a Swiss immigrant named Johann August Sutter showed up in Mexican California looking for a place to establish a colony of settlers, a New Helvetia of which he would be de facto king.

Concerned primarily with access to transportation arteries, as well as proximity to easily cultivable land, he selected a tract at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers and wrangled a grant of the property from California's governor.

Although Sutter built his fort on relatively high ground, the city that grew up around it — designated California's capital in 1854 — mainly occupied the fertile floodplain surrounding the rivers' confluence. From the beginning, Sacramento periodically was inundated by winter and spring runoff, but community leaders stubbornly refused to move, instead raising the streets and beginning construction of what would evolve over the next century into a Byzantine system of levees, bypass channels and dams.

The most prominent of these protective structures is Folsom Dam, completed in 1957 about 26 miles upstream from Sacramento on the American River. Built by the Bureau of Reclamation, Folsom is a multipurpose dam, designed to generate electricity, hold back floods and impound a water supply for farms and cities. Its effectiveness is hampered, however, by the contradictory natures of these tasks.

To capture spring floods, the reservoir behind the dam must be drawn down during the winter, when demand for irrigation water and electricity is low. If spring runoff is sparse, however, the reservoir will greet the beginning of the dry season with depleted storage and fail to meet its customers' needs. But if the dam's operators hold back too much water, they won't have room to capture the runoff from a giant storm.

Folsom's operational shortcomings are exacerbated by its designers' unwitting reliance on inaccurate estimates of the river system's flood potential. Folsom was designed to protect Sacramento from the magnitude of storm that statistically could be expected to occur only once every 250 years.

next page: runoff exceeds expectations

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