AUBURN, Calif. - Tom Aiken guides his old pickup along a crumbling road, past a steel gate, past a weathered shed filled with drilling cores, past heaps of gravel. Stopping at a pullout, he parks and leads the way to the canyon's lip.
The Middle Fork of the American River sparkles far below, emerging abruptly from a dark hole in the side of a stony ridge. Upstream of a U-shaped tunnel outlet, the curving riverbed is dry for about a mile. Above the waterless, boulder-strewn channel, the canyon walls have been betrayed: Huge parallel trenches have been gouged into them, and thousands of cubic yards of rock have been scoured away, leaving enormous fissures and cavities that have been filled with concrete.
"If this had been built, without a doubt it would have been more spectacular than Hoover Dam," says Aiken, who manages the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's North-Central California Area. "It would have been something to behold."
Instead, the American River canyon became home to the ghost of a great dam.
Now, as the Bureau turns its back on one of its lustiest structures, environmentalists hail the move as a victory. If it is a victory, however, it's mostly symbolic. This year, the agency will clean up some of the dam's detritus, plug the tunnel that holds the American River underground, and return the river to its channel. But then, to satisfy suburbanites, the agency will build a permanent pumping station so Placer County - which has a projected growth between 1997 and 2005 of 36 percent - can finally take advantage of its water rights in the American River.
"With growth comes increasing demands for water," says Brent Smith, with the Placer County Water Agency. "As demands continue to grow, we're forced to draw water from our Middle Fork water rights."
The dream deferred
A burly man with a gray goatee and a shaved scalp, Aiken does not look old enough to have worked for the Bureau for 35 years, more than a third of its institutional history. In his aviator-frame sunglasses, he does, however, look like the sort of man who would tool around town in a '34 Ford street rod, which is one of the ways he spends his spare time.
Aiken came to Auburn from Durango, Colo., in 1974. He was slated to be the administrative officer for the Auburn Dam project, one of the most ambitious construction projects of its time. Instead, he found himself the caretaker of a ghost town.
Auburn was originally designed as a "double-curvature thin arch dam." An artist's rendering of Auburn Dam depicts a soaring, graceful structure, almost birdlike in form, its winglike span extending three-quarters of a mile from canyon wall to canyon wall. It would have been the largest dam of its type in the world, 685 feet high, 4,150 feet long, 40 feet wide at the top and 196 feet wide at the bottom.
Congress authorized Auburn Dam in 1965, envisioning it as one of the final components of the Bureau's Central Valley Project: A mammoth system of dams, canals and pumps providing flood control, hydroelectric power and a water supply for farms and cities up and down California. Preliminary work began in 1967, and construction crews began excavating the foundation site in 1974.
In 1975, however, a 5.7 magnitude earthquake struck about 45 miles from the Auburn Dam. Geologists suggested the quake was on a fault system related to the one under the construction site, so when engineers admitted the quake was more powerful than anything the dam had been designed to withstand, work halted.
Then, a year later, the second shoe dropped. Teton Dam, a Bureau project in southern Idaho, failed catastrophically during the filling of its reservoir. The disaster shook the Bureau to its foundations, and prompted scrutiny of any projects where geologists raised questions about safety. More reviews and analyses were ordered for Auburn. Federal funding dried up.
Work never resumed. Already on its knees, Auburn Dam was targeted by an increasingly powerful environmental movement and a lucrative recreational rafting industry. Both had barely existed when Congress first authorized the project, and both fiercely opposed the inundation of more than 40 miles of wild river by Auburn's reservoir.
"I still haven't given up totally on an Auburn Dam," says Aiken. "But the effort to reauthorize it * I just don't see it happening."
Closing the door on the dam
More powerful than pressure from environmental or rafting groups, however, was the threat of litigation from the state of California. The Bureau did not consider closing the 2,400-foot tunnel carrying the Middle Fork American River around the moribund Auburn Dam site until 1999, when California's attorney general warned federal officials they had a legal obligation to restore the natural waterway and allow the state access to its water rights in the river. In March 2000, the Bureau and the state began negotiating a deal, which they signed in January 2001.
Despite the Bureau's plans to block the tunnel and restore the natural riverbed - all but guaranteeing the dam will remain no more substantial than a ghost - Auburn Dam's most vocal champion, Republican Rep. John Doolittle of California, remains convinced that this is the best alternative to guarantee the safety of downstream communities.
"As long as there are people living in harm's way, there will be a need for Auburn Dam," says Richard Robinson, Doolittle's press aide.
Opponents of the dam, however, argue that alternative measures will provide adequate flood protection, and they regard the Bureau's plan to block the diversion tunnel as reason to rejoice.
"We talk of it as putting another nail in the coffin of Auburn Dam," says Betsy Reifsnider, executive director of Friends of the River, which has been battling the project almost since its inception. "I think that when they put the water back in that river, there will be lots of people watching from the bank with tears in their eyes."
The author is a senior reporter for the Ventura County Star in Ventura, Calif.