Interior revives the push for a higher Shasta Dam

But the state of California and Winnemem Wintu Tribe oppose the project.

 

California’s largest reservoir, Shasta Lake, sits where the dry Central Valley meets the rainier, mountainous northern part of the state. At its western edge is Shasta Dam, 602 feet high, built by the Bureau of Reclamation between 1938 and 1945 to help irrigate California. For decades, agricultural and municipal water districts have sought to heighten the dam to capture more water as it runs out of the Cascade Range through the McCloud, Pit and Sacramento rivers. Environmentalists have long rallied against the proposal, and state officials contend such a project would violate California law. Now, though, with a push from some members of Congress and the current Interior Department, the idea has been given new life.

The Shasta Dam, built in the 1930s and 40s, could be raised another 18 feet, under a new proposal.
Anthony Dunn / Alamy Stock Photo

In January, the Interior Department informed Congress that, under the Trump administration, it had a “renewed focus on the development of new water storage in California and elsewhere.” Austin Ewell, a land and water use lawyer from Fresno, California, who became Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for water and science last fall, recently told a water authority meeting in central California’s San Joaquin Valley that construction on Shasta could start as early as late 2019.

Shasta Dam is a critical part of the Central Valley Project, a sprawling water system that runs 400 miles from Redding to Bakersfield. Shasta Lake holds 4.5 million acre-feet of water, allowing for hydroelectric power, flood control and critical water storage.

But the dam also looms large in the life of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, whose members live nearby. The people were forced from their land when the dam was built; in fact, their ancestral burial grounds were flooded by the reservoir.

Tribal Chief Caleen Sisk says 183 graves were dug up and moved when the dam was constructed. Others, however, were left behind. “There are a lot of burial grounds under the lake and will be more if they raise the lake,” she says. More ancestral land would be swallowed, including the site of a traditional coming-of-age ceremony that the tribe still uses today. Sisk also opposes the dam raise because it could threaten salmon populations already decimated by low stream flows, habitat loss and waters increasingly warmed by climate change. Salmon no longer live in the rivers above the dam; downstream, they continue to struggle.

shastadamprotest-jpg
In a 2013 protest, members of the Winnemen Wintu Tribe motored a “No Dam Raise” houseboat in front of Shasta Dam.
Dan Bacher/indybay.org

Hundreds of miles downstream, coastal fishermen also worry that enlarging the dam would harm the last remaining local chinook salmon. Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, says the project prioritizes farms over fishing. In the late 1970s, nearly 5,000 commercial fishermen netted and hooked salmon off Northern California; now, less than 400 do. “It’s death by a thousand cuts, and the dam is another cut,” he says.

Federal agencies appear to disagree about what a Shasta Dam raise would mean for salmon. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service draft report obtained by Friends of the River through a Freedom of Information Act request said the raise would likely prove detrimental to endangered chinook salmon, because it would decrease downstream flows. But project supporters point to a different report, by the Bureau of Reclamation, which says the project could actually benefit salmon by creating colder waters on the Sacramento River.

Some of the biggest champions of the Shasta Dam raise are agricultural districts. “The reality is, people need water and farmers need water,” says Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the United States. “We have to use every tool available … and being able to capture water in storage during periods of high runoff has to be one of those tools.” Raising the dam would provide an additional 600,000 acre-feet of water annually — enough, for example, to irrigate over 275,000 acres.

Westlands’ critics respond that raising the dam will mainly benefit corporate ag interests. But Birmingham says thousands of workers will suffer if districts like Westlands don’t receive enough water. During intense regional drought in 2015, allocations were zeroed out, and farmers were forced to fallow fields.

There are many unanswered questions, including the vitally important one of who would pay for the project. An 18-foot boost would cost at least $1.3 billion. So far, the project has only $20 million from the 2018 federal Omnibus bill. Nevertheless, Erin Curtis, a Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson, told HCN the agency plans to move forward this year with pre-construction design while it looks for potential cost-sharing partners.

Meanwhile, the state of California is gearing up for a fight. State officials say raising the dam would violate California’s Wild and Scenic River Act, which protects a stretch of the McCloud River for its trout fishery and “free-flowing condition.” And, if the project does get a green light, several environmental groups will likely sue the federal government or cost-sharing water districts.  

Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Tom Birmingham’s name.

Tay Wiles is an associate editor for High Country News. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Founded by sportsmen and women in 1936, the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to protecting, conserving, and enhancing Idaho's natural resources,...
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...