Centennial Dam is dead.

We’re working on the obituary, so we can all learn the history of the project, and why it was really dead-on-arrival in 2014 when NID raised this 100-year old idea from the grave.

Help us write the Obit!

BearPARC’s draft obituary is shown below. And below that is a detailed explanation, providing additional background on the bullet points and the history.

This is an invitation for you to give feedback. Did we miss anything? Do you like the graphic?

Let us know what you think!

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R.I.P. Centennial Dam
R.I.P. Centennial Dam

A Lovely Obituary for Centennial Dam

It’s been a long ten years since NID announced the imminent construction of Centennial Dam on the Bear River. While the project’s demise is not formally acknowledged by NID, it is quite reasonable to announce Centennial is dead. Yet there is no cause for grieving… because the project was never actually alive. It was just a decade-long misstep that cost ratepayers and taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Here’s why the dam has always been dead on arrival:

  • A billion dollar dam project would bankrupt NID.
  • NID’s own Plan for Water revealed a low “future unmet demand” that in no way supports a project of this scale.
  • Our local community is vehemently divided on this issue. A project of this magnitude needs local consensus.
  • State and Federal money will never subsidize an onstream dam above the Delta on the Bear River. There’s been no money for onstream dams for half a century.
  • Environmental studies of Centennial were never completed, and would inevitably face colossal legal challenges.
  • NID has not even secured water rights, and their application to the State Board received over a dozen formal legal protests.

Lastly, NID has one of the most plentiful water supplies in the State, using half of its current reservoir supply annually, and using about 25% of its existing water rights. We should celebrate this, and we should never mourn the demise of this truly misguided project.

It’s time to think differently about the Bear River. Look to the north, where the Yuba River for fifty years has Wild & Scenic protection and is a foundation for recreational and tourist branding in our area. To the south, the failed Auburn Dam has given birth to the American River Recreation Area with 2 million visitors a year and is Auburn’s economic hinge pin. Why aren’t we appreciating and developing the living Bear River in the heart of our community in the same way?

Though Valentine’s Day has passed, why not relax and fall in love with this beautiful Sierran river?

NID has had three runs at building a dam at this Bear River site in the last 100 years— 1926, 1958, and 2014. Three strikes and you’re out. Time to let go. No grieving. Nothing ever died. Let’s be grateful.

Centennial Obituary:  more information on why Centennial is Dead.

Here is expanded commentary on each of the bulleted points in the short Centennial Obituary. These are the six fatal flaws why Centennial is dead on arrival. And to cheer you up, we’ve added a seventh point, and that is that NID is abundantly blessed with a huge water supply resource— more per capita than almost any other water agency in the State— so you don’t have to worry.

First, restating the Fatal Flaws, with one more added for good measure (item 7):

    1. A billion dollar dam project would bankrupt NID.
    2. NID’s own Plan for Water revealed a low “future unmet demand” that in no way supports a project of this scale.
    3. Our local community is vehemently divided on this issue. A project of this magnitude needs local consensus.
    4. State and Federal money will never subsidize an onstream dam above the Delta on the Bear River. There’s been no money for onstream dams for half a century.
    5. Environmental studies of Centennial were never completed, and would inevitably face colossal legal challenges.
    6. NID has not even secured water rights, and their application to the State Board received over a dozen formal legal protests.
    7. NID has spent over $10 million on property acquisition, yet there is more to acquire. NID has threatened Eminent Domain to all property owners, which is a practical and political challenge.
    8. NID already has abundant water. You don’t have to worry.

Expanding on the Fatal Flaws:

Let’s dig into these critical factors that make Centennial DOA (dead on arrival)

    1. Centennial  is not affordable. Follow the money. NID does not have it.
      1. First, this dam project is profoundly expensive. NID’s current estimate is $584,000,000; NID’s estimate in 2014 was $160,000,000. It is doubtful the current estimate is legitimate. In 2017, ARWI issued an 16 page opinion paper on costs of the dam, which predicted a 2022 cost of $600,000,000. [link to come] With financing costs included, dam costs are about $1.5 billion. This scale of project is simply not affordable to NID, as the small customer base could never absorb these costs..
      2. Second, NID does not have a credit rating that could support that level of borrowing, and customer rates would skyrocket. An analysis of NID debt service ratio and impacts to customer rates was done in 2017. [link to come]
      3. NID is currently struggling to raise rates high enough to just cover costs of operational needs. Deferred maintenance has been the MO for several years as rate hikes have been deferred. NID rates simply cannot support more than the existing needs for basic operations.
      4. NID’s credit rating as indicated by its debt service ratio suggests that NID has a borrowing capacity of roughly $50 million. The NID infrastructure is old, is saddled with decades of deferred maintenance, and is vulnerable to all sorts of canal or siphon or pipeline failures from age, natural disaster, catastrophic fire, and the like. NID needs its borrowing capacity in reserve for crisis management, not for fantasy expansion of dam storage.
      5. In the decade prior to its current new management, NID prevented drastic rate hikes by spending down a $60 million reserve. In the past several years, NID has struggled to recover even a modest reserve fund. [financial report]  
        In summary, NID does not have adequate reserve capital, and needs to keep its borrowing capacity for emergencies and maintenance of its existing infrastructure.
    1. NID’s Plan for Water has identified possible future unmet demand of 40,000 acre feet of water. That level of future unmet demand can easily be met by optimizing existing facilities and finally doing some efficiency measures. NID is decades late getting to conservation programs. Just installing weirs on the Rollins spillway would satisfy much of this projected unmet demand.
      Plan for Water in January 2024 identified possible options of raising Rollins Dam compared to building Centennial Dam. Raising the existing Rollins Dam, as explained by NID Manager Jennifer Hansen, seems to satisfy the unmet future demands equally to Centennial Dam, at much less cost, and with much reduced political and environmental opposition. NID seems to be shifting to a raise at Rollins Dam as their preferred option for expanded reservoir supply…. More to come on this within the next few months.
    2. NID’s community is hopelessly divided on this proposed dam. A huge project will never get built when it is not overwhelmingly supported by the community. An indication of the turbulence is the turnover in NID’s governance and management: none of the five elected directors who initiated this project in 2015 still have a seat on the Board, and the 2015 Manager, Chief Financial Officer, and Chief Engineer have all left NID and been replaced.
    3. NID will never get State or Federal funding. When NID applied to the California Water Commission for Centennial hundreds of millions in construction funds, the Commission gave the project a very early rejection, stating it had “no public value”. NID first characterized Centennial as a  “climate change solution”; the chances of Washington funding a climate change dam in California are precisely zero. 
    4. Environmental analysis has not been done, either at State (EIR) or Federal (EIS & 404 permits) level. Without doubt, there will be vigorous opposition and lawsuits. These challenges are a certainty, which even if not successful, will delay the project for years.
    5. NID has not received water rights for the project, and has simply filed an application for the water rights from State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). Their filing was met with a flurry of formal protests submitted to SWRCB, so this process will be lengthy and hotly contested with legal challenges. NID’s legal counsel has even advised the Board that in the light of the State Water Board’s analysis of “unimpaired flows” for the Delta, getting an assignment of “unallocated water” from the Bear River is dicey.
    6. In 2015, NID held a closed meeting with property owners of parcels within the “take zone” of Centennial Dam. At that meeting, the General Manager threatened that NID would take the lands by eminent domain if the current owners did not make a voluntary agreement to sell their land to NID. NID then bought over $10 million in property. All of this was done before any of Centennial Dam’s environmental reports (EIR/EIS), which by the way is illegal as you cannot implement a project until after EIS/EIR reports are complete. Still, there are many parcels to buy, and many will challenge eminent domain. Eminent domain seizing of lands is very unpopular in conservative political circles. In addition, some of the lands needed for the reservoir are outside NID’s jurisdiction, which makes eminent domain much more difficult and easier to contest. And further, one of the parcels necessary for acquisition has a Placer Land Trust (PLT) conservation easement that protects the lands “in perpetuity”, and PLT has
    7. NID is one of the most well endowed water agencies in the State, with 450,000 Acre Feet of water rights, 250,000 Acre Feet of dam storage, and customer demand of just over 100,000 acre feet. NID, unlike virtually every other water agency in California, has never had to impose drought restrictions, and has only recently begun to implement customer conservation programs that have been mainstream for decades. The threat of scarcity affects NID less than almost any other water agency in the State. NID believes it is independent, and its water rights are its sole property; NID is currently involved in fear-based rhetoric and protectionist practices. All of California is in this challenge together. Cooperation, efficiency, and frugality are the inevitable themes of the future.