The Last Dam in California vs. Water Space in the Netherlands


The New Melones Dam was the last big dam built in California between 1976-79. It was controversial. Environmentalists would reside in the canyon of the Stanislaus River, the deepest limestone canyon in the country, in an attempt to save it. To no avail. In the winter of 1979 the rainfall was enough to fill up the whole canyon for the first time.  With the growing population, increasing industry, and increasing irrigation for cattle feed, this was another must-have project. The Army Corps of Engineers provided the final blow again. Unfortunately the water yield was lower than expected. Even in the wet 2017-18 year, when most of the reservoirs were at 75-90%, the New Melones was only at 30-50%. Most of the rainfall that year fell in Northern California, which the New Melones dam is not part of.   

“Well,” said Theo, “here we have another project, later labeled as: ‘a case study of all that can go wrong with a project’!”  

“Then what is the answer?” Ben asked. 

“Ironically, the whole idea of needing more dams went away, and even existing dams have been, and are, demolished so the salmon can travel freely between the spawning grounds and the sea instead of becoming chopped liver through the power plant pumps,” Theo surmised. 

“And, while the California population keeps expanding?” Ben asked.

“The population has been demanding an accounting of where water was going and increasingly realized that water was really cheap, courtesy of the California and American tax-payer.  If farmers would have to pay the full price, they would not grow tomatoes in the Central Valley, let alone irrigation of cattle feed, which is the most un-economical use of California water,” Theo replied.  

“That sounds like a similar development in the Netherlands,” Ben continued. “We used to see straight canals built, for the convenience of shipping routes. We would build pretty high dikes to keep the water funneled, and be able to expand industry and towns in the area around the canal. In years of extreme storms with high tides, especially during full moon, people around the canals got nervous, hoping the dikes would hold. Then around the end of the 1900’s, beginning of the 2000’s, water management philosophies changed. In places where there was a secondary dike, the main dike was broken, for the water to have an expanded area to flow into, like the Yolo Causeway, along the Sacramento River, in California. Along the big rivers, secondary dikes got reinforced and primary dikes broken for the same reason. In the winter these areas become excess water reservoirs. In the Spring and Summer it becomes grazing land for cows. In the East of Holland, rivers that had been ‘straightened out’, were allowed to meander in their prior river beds again, which allows for expansion of water flows and time for water to percolate back into the ground. This brought back wildlife, like fish and birds, plus plant species that had almost become extinct.”