San Joaquin River Gorge

Threatened by the proposed Temperance Flat Dam

UPDATE DEC 2020: The future of new dam projects in California wax and wane depending on the amount of public subsidy and funding is available. The proposed Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River Gorge was at the top of the “build it now” wish list of most local governments and congressmembers representing the southern Central Valley. But the California Water Commission – the primary state partner that could fund future storage projects – was only willing to commit taxpayer approved bonds to cover 6 percent of the dam’s $3 billion cost. Even though the Trump Administration is clearly willing to provide substantial federal taxpayer subsidies from the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act for the dam, southern Central Valley agricultural interests instead prefer to prioritize multimillion-dollar improvements to the valley’s extensive but decaying canal systems.

In addition, the Temperance Flat Authority (a joint partnership of local irrigation districts, water contractors, and communities) commissioned an economic analysis of the dam project and discovered that what little water would be reliably produced by the dam would cost as much as $9,000 an acre foot – an expense beyond the reach of most farmers and even larger cities. As a result, the Authority this November officially notified the California Water Commission that it did not intend to spend any state funds on the dam at this time and it encouraged the Commission to spend state funds on other “eligible San Joaquin Valley projects.”

Some pundits consider this turn of events as a death knell for the Temperance Flat Dam. But the truth is that no dam project in California ever truly dies. They just continue on as zombie dams while the corporate lobbyists and local hucksters continue to pursue public funding with nearly religious fervor. For now, the future of the Temperance Flat Dam seems limited. But politics behind the project remain strong, so this expensive, ineffective, and environmentally destructive dam could return at any time. In the meantime, take advantage of dam project’s hiatus to visit the San Joaquin River Gorge.   

ORIGINAL POST: In the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Fresno, the San Joaquin River has carved a scenic gorge, studded in granite outcrops and clothed in oak woodlands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers more than 6,000 acres of the Gorge for public recreation, wildlife habitat, and protection of cultural resources. More than 80,000 people annually visit the Gorge to hike, ride horses and mountain bikes, and participate in competitive events on an extensive trail system, including the San Joaquin River Trail, which will eventually lead to Devil’s Postpile National Monument. The Gorge’s three campgrounds provide excellent basecamps to explore the area and local school children visit the BLM’s small museum and environmental education center to learn about the area’s natural and cultural resources. Cavers visit the unique Millerton Cave system and during the rainy season, kayakers challenge the Gorge’s class III-V whitewater.

Recognizing that the San Joaquin River Gorge is an extraordinary example of an undammed low elevation river canyon in the Sierra foothills that possesses outstandingly remarkable scenery, recreation, cultural, and wildlife values, the BLM found the river to be eligible and suitable for National Wild & Scenic River protection. Unfortunately, the agency recommendation to protect more than seven miles of this magnificent river has not stopped Congress or the State from approving millions of dollars in taxpayer funding to complete feasibility and environmental studies for the proposed Temperance Flat Dam. Rising more than 600 feet high, the proposed dam would flood the entire Gorge, along with all of its natural and cultural values – the trail system, campgrounds, museum and environmental education center, Native American cultural sites, and the Millerton Caves.

The proposed dam will likely cost more than $3 billion while boosting California’s statewide water supply by less than one percent – providing only 47 cents for every public dollar invested. Even though it would be the second highest dam in California, the new reservoir behind the Temperance Flat Dam would be mostly empty most years. There are already so many large dams and reservoirs on the San Joaquin River, that the river formerly ran dry in the Central Valley. A legal decision that re-watered the lower river to restore its once fabled salmon run is also endangered by the proposed new dam, which would reduce downstream flows during the critical spring period when the restored salmon return to the river.

Even the Bureau of Reclamation, the dam’s primary federal proponent, admits that the Temperance Flat Dam project would have “long term, unavoidable, adverse impacts” on the scenery, recreation, riparian habitat, wetlands, and cultural resources of the San Joaquin River Gorge. The San Joaquin is already one of the most heavily dammed rivers in California. More dams are not the solution to the state’s chronic drought cycles and water mismanagement problems. We can easily save more water through conservation than the Temperance Flat Dam can produce. California should reject the Temperance Flat Dam, implement aggressive water conservation and recycling programs to meet our water needs, and protect the magnificent San Joaquin River Gorge for present and future generations.