As in a variety of politically contentious arenas, approaches to water supply range from progressive to conservative. The former side demands water conservation and free-flowing rivers, while the latter wants more dams and limitless development. Odd, then, that one of the most liberal areas of California would find itself teetering on the edge of the far right of this spectrum. East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) wants an expensive, destructive dam expansion in the Sierra Nevada foothills to address a currently non-existent lack of water. Their reason? So the region can keep building up its unaffordable bedroom communities, and new residents can keep wasting cheap water like they lived in Seattle during a monsoon.

The Proposal

Next month, EBMUD will hold hearings on a proposal to drop a new 400 foot dam onto the Mokelumne River, about 30 miles northeast of Stockton. The dam would replace the current 345-foot Pardee Dam, resulting in an increase of enough storage capacity to serve a city roughly the size of Portland.

Some impacts would come quickly. Millions of gallons that currently find their way into the delta would be redirected, hastening the area’s ecological collapse. Miles of river recently declared eligible for Wild and Scenic status by the federal government would be drowned, ending the steady stream of recreationalists that regularly kayak down the river. And the Middle Bar Bridge, built near the turn of the century and recently restored to the tune of more than $650,000, would be cut down and removed.

But dam construction would also have consequences that would take a while to bubble to the surface. A cash-strapped state would be constructing an extremely expensive project while cutting essential services to a broad spectrum of people. The river’s tourism industry, as well as the state’s salmon fishing industry, would take a severe hit during brutal economic times. And a place close to the hearts of thousands of Northern California residents would be eliminated.

Considering all the havok replacement of the Pardee Dam would wreak, you’d think EBMUD would have an air-tight, life-or-death argument for proposing such a project. But in California, water and logic rarely go hand in hand.

The ‘Need’

One reason a utility district like EBMUD would seek out more water would be spiking demand, an upward trend so steep that no amount of conservation could ever hope to catch it. Yet oddly enough, water use in the District declined from 1970 to 2005, from 220 million gallons a day to 205. Scratch that idea.

Another would be that no new sources of water remain available, striking fear in the heart of the District that dependence on only one source of water (EBMUD gets 90 percent of its water from the Mokelumne) could lead to disaster. Yet with the $500 million Freeport Water Project recently completed, the District now gets up to 100 million gallons a day from the Sacramento River during dry years, representing a major new source should anything happen to their current system. Scratch that idea too.

The only remaining reasonable reason would be fear of a drought, a desperate attempt to ensure that whatever ills wrought by climate change and strange weather patterns would not catastrophically affect the District’s water supply. Yet here may lie the most confusing aspect of the proposed project - making the dam bigger doesn’t guarantee more supply during an extended drought. During many years, the Mokelumne is unable to utilize the capacity of even the existing Pardee Dam. This means that when a drought starts, the chances that the expanded reservoir will be full are slim at best. Such a scenario would leave the extra water supposedly provided by the new dam lost to the dust.

Given no reasonable reasons for the new dam, it’s best to look elsewhere.

The Real Reasons

EBMUD itself outlined a slew of alternatives to the new dam in their Water Supply Management Program, alternatives which could ensure a reliable and safe water supply for the region for many years to come. Water recycling, expanded conservation strategies, and pricing systems to reduce demand all represent avenues towards the goal of a stable East Bay.

The problem with many of these options involves the sacrifice they require from water users. Past attempts to charge heavy water users their fair share - or at least enough so they start reducing the amount they use - sparked claims from EBMUD that residents and businesses would revolt, either packing up and leaving or refusing to pay for their water.

This tactic will strike many as eerily familar, as it mirrors an argument often used by conservatives to battle proposed tax increases that primarily affect the wealthy. A rate increase on big water users in the East Bay would be just that. Such an increase could achieve its goals without increasing rates in low-income communites like Richmond at all, as these areas use the least amount of water in the region. The increases would, however, disproportionately impact single family ranchettes on the eastern edge of the region. Apparently, the District knows which side their bread is buttered on.

Rate increases and other conservation strategies could also be drastically curtailed if the District didn’t believe the area would see extensive growth. Yet in its Water Supply Management Program, the District estimated a growth rate of more than double the current rate for the region. The estimate is too inflated to be merely an attempt at conservative estimates - instead, the District remains intent on ensuring it won’t stand in the way of progress.

If past events are any indicator, that ‘progress’ will involve more water-sucking single-family homes on the outskirts of the District.

The Future of Water in California

The idea that California can continue to allow relentless growth by trying to squeeze out more water from already over-appropriated rivers represents a step back in thinking of several decades. EBMUD and communities throughout the state must start thinking more creatively and rationally about how to ensure a sustainable future.

Ending growth entirely isn’t necessary. High-denisty housing, built in areas already served by infrastructure and with the latest water conservation technology, would increase water demand by a fraction of that of new suburban development.

But hard decisions must be made. Residents of the East Bay and elsewhere can’t keep expecting to use water like our supply will never end. It’s the duty of our elected boards and public agencies to put in place strategies now that ensure our survival through whatever tempests may come our way. Friends of the River and a variety of other environmental organizations are organizing efforts to stop the expansion of Pardee Dam. But in a world where decision-makers take full responsibility for their actions, EBMUD would have never had the audacity to propose it in the first place.