BENEATH the blinding noon sun, a score of chest-heaving river rafters rests on the banks of the American River here."If the Auburn Dam gets built, where you are standing will be inundated 200 feet deep," says Scott Armstrong, whitewater rafting guide for All Outdoors Adventure Trips. Forty miles downriver, Sacramento County, growing by about 30,000 per year, burgeons across flood-prone plains, ever increasing its demand for reliable water reserves and new power sources. After a quarter century of confrontation, stop-start construction, and legal entanglement, one of the nation's last epic battles between metropolitan water needs and environmental preservation is headed toward climax. A battle between federal standards mandating sorely needed flood measures and efforts to conserve one of the last free-flowing canyon rivers in California, the Auburn Dam project is a study in evolving public values. Legislation now working its way through Congress compromises old-style national public-works models - those behind hundreds of dams built nationwide since 1900 - with newer, environment- and budget-conscious engineering ideals. "Auburn is one of the last, giant public-works dam projects under consideration by Congress," says David Conrad, water resources specialist for the National Wildlife Federation. "Because of the sheer magnitude of the project, the policies adopted could set precedents affecting hamlets the length and breadth of the US."
Flood control The saga of "the dam that will not die" began in 1975 when a federal flood-control, irrigation, and hydroelectric project that started a decade earlier was halted. Seismologists revealed that the site sat on a major fault line. Construction still had not resumed when a flood swamped Sacramento in 1986 and unleashed new public fervor for plans to protect the state capital's 350,000 population. Dam proponents say the state and city need the water, power, and flood control. Opponents say the structure would flood 48 miles of pristine canyons, historical sites, wildlife habitat, and a recreation area that should be preserved. "Flooding is a very serious issue here," notes Pat Fulton, Washington lobbyist for the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency. A so-called 100-year event - a worst-case flood projected during that period - would inundate the homes of over 300,000 people and $22.6 billion worth of property, he says. Some 70,000 people would be submerged from 14 to 20 feet deep. Ending years of research, the Army Corps of Engineers this spring put forward a new proposal for a 500-foot structure near Auburn, Calif., that it said would protect Sacramento from any flood occurring in 400 years. Claiming federal standards require only 100-year protection, 26 local, state, and federal environmental groups known as the American River Coalition (ARC) are calling instead for improvements to an existing dam down river at Folsom Lake - including management precautions not taken in the 1986 flood - and a refurbished levee system. Taking a middle ground, Reps. Vic Fazio (D) and Robert Matsui (D) of California will introduce a compromise measure next January that calls for a 200-year protective "dry" dam - a structure that leaves canyons and rivers untouched until a flooding event necessitates shutting flood gates. "California's 800 rivers already have 1,200 dams," points out ARC associate director Charles Casey. Reiterating budget squeezes at local, state, and federal levels, he says "there are other ways to give Sacramento the flood protection it needs." Mr. Casey says even intermittent flooding would kill the waterside plant and wildlife in 48 miles of canyon upstream from the dam. The ARC is also wary of a political compromise that could allow for design specifications to permit future dam expansion. Rep. John T. Doolittle (R) of California is trying to kindle interest in a multipurpose structure. Contending moral and numerical superiority for a full-purpose structure that would provide water, flood protection, and power, Representative Doolittle says "the pro-dam forces have been losing skirmishes mainly because they lacked focus."
Budget pressures For his part, Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has supported "needed flood control on the American in a manner that has minimal impact on fishery, recreation, and wildlife values." But California's recent budget crisis - which resulted in steep tax increases and service cuts to make up a $14.3 billion deficit - may also have created incentive to accept a larger dam: 75 percent of the funding would come from the federal government. "If they come in here waving money for that much of a project, you can bet it will be hard to turn down," says Phil Williams, an independent hydrologist and consultant to scores of dam projects across the West. Mr. Williams says that damming the American will give Sacramento a false sense of security. "The history of dam building shows you have to discourage people from building in flood-prone areas," he says. "We've seen time and again that structural flood-control measures by themselves don't work," he adds. But development advocates in Sacramento seem to shrug off such advice. The neighboring community of Natomas, for instance, has added 22,000 homes in recent years in an area bordered by both the Sacramento and American Rivers. Developers and land speculators face either dramatic losses or huge gains in property values depending on the outcome of the dam debate. "If we are going to get authorization for this dam," says Tom Keaney, press secretary for Representative Matsui, "we are going to have to build a consensus that does not now exist." The Army Corps of Engineers proposal, say such groups as the US Fish and Wildlife Service, taints public dialogue with information favoring a large dam. In over 1,500 responses from government and private organizations to the Corps' "American River Watershed Investigation," a vast majority have been negative. With a mid-1992 federal deadline approaching to have either flood-control measures in the works or lose Federal Emergency Management Association flood insurance protections, the biggest battle lies just ahead. Environmentalists say the danger is that all sides will get mired in too many paper reports with lifeless data, charts, and statistics. "Once people get out here on the river and see what is at stake, they suddenly have a new appreciation and the debate suddenly changes," says Casey. "They are more ready to reach a compromise between public needs and well-preserved environment."