Democrats in California are opposing Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to build two new dams near Fresno and Sacramento at a cost of US$4.5B, which he announced in his State of the State address earlier this month.

Senate leader Don Perata of Oakland and three upper-house Democrats have introduced legislation that focuses on increased underground water storage, shoring up crumbling levees, overhauling water-related bureaucracy and increasing conservation. While some of these elements are included in Governor Schwarzenegger’s plans, they oppose the construction of the dams.

‘We do not believe new dams, at this point, are needed,’ said Perata at a news conference. ‘They cost billions of dollars and they take years, in fact decades, to build.’ Perata cited Los Vaqueros Reservoir, midway between Livermore and Brentwood as an example of why Democrats oppose dam construction.

The reservoir was approved by voters in 1988 and was finally completed in the 2000s and cost at least three times more than the original US$450M estimate. In 2004, voters backed the Contra Costa Water District’s initiative to nearly triple the size of the 136Mm3 reservoir. This would capture more meltwater from the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which flows through rivers into the Bay Area delta. According to local officials, the East Bay Municipal Water District (which serves Oakland) and other Bay Area suppliers would benefit in times of drought and water shortages. However, the plans for expansion are plagued by environmental and cost concerns and are moving forward at a very slow pace.

The governor and his aides believe that a key aspect of California’s long-term plan to cope with growing water-supply demands and the effects of global warming is boosting the total reservoir capacity – or surface storage – by constructing new dams. In this they are supported by GOP lawmakers and farmers, who are see dams as a major bargaining chip in negotiations over bonds for continued infrastructure improvements this year.

In November, voters approved public works bonds in excess of US$40B, nearly a fourth of which is for flood control and water management. The administration is now proposing an extra $40B or more to address additional needs, as part of a $200B plan.

Another of Perata’s objections to the Governor’s plans is that asking for more money from voters before completing works that have already been approved is ‘bad policy and bad politics’.

Sacramento Democrat, Sen Darrel Steinberg agrees, citing the environmental impact reports – one of the first steps in the dam construction process – which will not be ready until winter 2008 and summer 2009 respectively. ‘Why would it be good public policy to fund these projects when the feasibility work, the environmental work, from the administration’s perspective, is not going to be even completed for two years?’