In Search of a Figary – The Damn Water Issue

A number of people have suggested increasing the height of Shasta Dam by about 20 feet as a partial solution for water problems within the State of California.

In my view, such an action would be absolutely stupid. At present, Shasta Lake has the ability to store 4,552,000 acre-feet of water. Most years the accumulation in Shasta Lake does not even approach that maximum. When Shasta Lake appears in danger of filling completely up, the operators of the Shasta Dam open the spillway.

In the 65 years between 1945 and 2010, the spillway has been opened 12 times.

The most water released down the spillway in any of those 12 occasions was 253 acre-feet in 1982.1 As of this writing, the dam is releasing 6,500 cubic feet per second. That translates into 537 acre-feet per hour. The point is if you look at the river right now you’ll see an amount of water equal to the most ever to come down the spillway going by in less than 30 minutes. Granted, they were letting a lot of other water out and had the releases up to the maximum of about 80,000 cubic feet per second, sometimes for weeks. However, in 19 of those 65 years, the total inflow into Shasta Lake was less than the storage capacity of the existing dam if they did not let any water out at all.

Finally, the pressure on a dam to fracture it, push it over, or disrupt its foundations increases as the square of the depth of the water behind the dam. If anyone has ever found any proof that the people who engineered Shasta Dam about 70 years ago built in extra strength for this increased water, nobody has mentioned it.

The fact of the matter is that in most years, raising the Shasta Dam another 20 feet or so will only cause anyone who fell or jumped from the top of the dam to drop an additional 20 feet before they hit whatever they would hit if they jumped or fell from its current height.


As romantic and wonderful as it sounds, the formation of the Great State of Jefferson would be an unmitigated disaster. About the only thing that is preventing an “in your face” grab of Northern California water is the fact that the politicians in Sacramento have to pay some attention to us, at least some of the time.

If we became a different state, they would not have to pay no more attention to us than they do to the people in Oregon or Washington. If we don’t like what they are doing now, we can at least go down to Sacramento, gather on the steps of the Capitol, and bitch them out. If there were a State of Jefferson, Sacramento would simply tell us to go home and talk to our own state legislature, who, of course, could do nothing.

As things presently stand, a State of Jefferson would create two safe senatorial seats and continue a safe congressional seat for the Republican Party. However, not a lot of people would have to move into the State of Jefferson to turn that around. The local people who are trying to bring new jobs into this region talk a lot about bringing in high tech jobs. That, if successful, is likely to bring in a lot of Democrat voters. In 2012, Santa Clara County voted 70% Democrat and 27% Republican in the Presidential Election.

Additionally, the State of Jefferson would be broke, as in big time broke. The median income per household in the U.S. is $50,000.00. In California, it is $58,000.00. In Lassen County (the best off of the counties in the State of Jefferson) it is $46,377.00. In Shasta County it is $42,500.00; Tehama County is $38,179.00; and in Modoc, it is a whopping $34,250.00. Add to that the sparse population, and you do not have a lot of tax revenue.


That the construction unions would support Doug LaMalfa instead of a Democrat who actually knows something about water policy because LaMalfa supports a couple of dam projects he does not know anything about is simply astounding. The American Labor Movement exists because of three Federal laws. The National Labor Relations Act, the Taft Hartley Act, and the Landrum-Griffith Act. The National Labor Relations Act took the jurisdiction over labor disputes away from local police officers and courts (many of whom were very adverse to labor) and put it into the hands of The Labor Relations Board with instructions to level the playing field so working people could get a fair deal. This put an end to local courts issuing injunctions against unions as criminal conspiracies and local police agencies bashing heads on picket lines.

LaMalfa and his kindred spirits would repeal those laws in a New York Second if they had a chance. I belonged to the Labor’s Union years ago. If I still had my card, I would be howling for leadership blood. When short-sighted actions line up for lunch, this one will get the rare steak.

FYI: Figary is Irish slang for doing something in haste or without thinking it through. Aren’t you glad you asked?


Dugan Barr has practiced law in Redding since 1967. He has tried more than 200 civil jury cases to verdict. He is married and has five children. The offices of Barr and Mudford, LLP, are at 1824 Court St. in Redding and can be reached at 243-8008.

Dugan Barr
Dugan Barr has practiced law in Redding since 1967, primarily in the areas of personal injury and wrongful death. He has tried more than 200 civil jury cases to verdict. He is married and has five children. He can be reached at Barr & Mudford, 1824 Court St., Redding, 243-8008, or
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19 Responses

  1. Avatar A. Brady says:

    Good morning, Mr. Barr. You have hit the nail on the head on all three accounts!

  2. Avatar Ginny says:

    What you wrote about Shasta Dam was very informative. With great hope, I pray that others work to stop the raising of the dam. Anyone who wants to raise that dam I saw being built when I was here in 1939, is very uninformed and really quite stupid. One thing, if that dam’s front ever crumbled, it would wipe out Redding and many other places along the Sacramento River, destroying property and killing animals, and way too many thousands of people.

    As for Jefferson County, it is possible that some people are just frustrated that if they don’t believe as the Democrats. They feel they are stepped on in Sacramento, plus every Democrat thinking the only way is their way or the highway. Our State has been in Democrat hands for a very, very long time. There are so many things wrong in Sacramento, it too numerous to write about our poor (in many ways) State.

    The Taft-Hartley Law has been so changed over the years that it is amazing you even mentioned it. What some people don’t approve of with unions is it has to be their way, period. When the teachers’ union tells you where you can shop or not, that is too much intrusion on the rights of the individual. Unions can be good, but they can also go way, way too far.

    I do thank you for the information on Shasta Dam. Pray it never gets raised!

  3. Avatar Terry Turner says:

    Dugan, thank you for an insightful and informative discussion of these issues. I appreciate the time and effort you took to make this clear for all of us. Thank you!

  4. Thankyou for bringing up the dam issue! I had the same thought. If we can’t keep the lake filled now, how are we going to fill it if it’s bigger?! Makes no sense.

    The State if Jefferson makes no sense to me, either. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face!

    As for La Malfa ~ where do I begin? He is very vested in his own interests, nuff said there.

    Good article, as usual!

  5. Avatar Grammy says:

    Here Here. I just wish more people registered and voted. The actual people that vote are retired older people that know democrats are on their side.
    The average person says, “We can’t change a thing so why even try?” Sure one vote doesn’t have any power but if that one vote was added to other one votes….they add up to power.
    In the 35 years that we have lived in the North State we have heard the issue of lake raising, new lakes and putting meters on ALL water use. The best solution we have always thought was the lake that was purpose in the Bald Hills area west of Igo. All the work of planning this lake was done. With the mountain that contained the right make-up to form the dam close by. What sank this lake was that the people in the North State just didn’t want a lake that wasn’t recreational to them. It would be an ascetically (I hope I have the right word for this) beautiful object only. What is wrong with that? But selfishness won. Just not did want to have something that was for Southern area of the State no matter how beautiful it was.
    The main problem I saw was that the Bald Hills is called that for a reason..not much rain. The clouds drop their rain in the mountains just west of that.

  6. Avatar Todd Gandy says:

    Your math on the dam is misleading.

    Dams are built for two things: to reduce flooding and to help mitigate the effects of a drought.

    Your research on the number of times the spillway has been forced to open shows that the dam has been successful in controlling flooding and yes, its capacity should not be increased for this reason.

    Droughts on the other hand, are a fact of life in California. Why are they more alarming now? They are more worrisome because our population has grown. From 1990 to 2010 we added 7.4 million people, an increase of 24%. The population in 1950 (closer to the time the dam was built) was only 10.5 million total and now we are at over 38 million. With the growing population our use of water increases and the risks associated with a drought grow.

    Using your numbers if we could take those weeks where they were releasing 80,000 cubic feet per second, reduce the flow of the rate to what it is now at 6,500 cubic feet per second we could be saving in a wet year 73,500 cubic feet per second. Which equates to retaining 6,072 acre-feet of water per hour behind the dam. Do this for two weeks and that is 2 million acre-feet of water now stored behind the dam. With 2 million acre-feet of water, you could keep the river flowing at the current flow of 537 acre-feet per hour for 6 months even if there was no water running into the dam at all.

    Those are not numbers to scoff at. What does figary mean again?

    • Dugan Barr Dugan Barr says:

      According to a Bureau of Reclamation study released about a year ago, raising Shasta Dam would increase the storage by 14%, which is 630,000 acre feet, not 2,000,000. Further, about 5, 800,000 acre feet are released by the dam in the average year. If you could find somplace to put another 2,000,000 acre feet, the inflow would have to be enough to replace the 5,800,000 acre feet released and stack up another 2,000,000 on top of it. Unless I miscounted, in only 8 years since 1945 has there been enough inflow into Shasta Lake to do that.

      Like I said. A figary.

      • Avatar Todd Gandy says:

        Don’t focus on the 2,000,000 number. That was quick math just to try to illustrate that you can fill the dam by saving water when flows are high.

        Why on average is 5,800,000 acre feet released from Shasta Dam? That’s because on average 5,800,000 acre feet flow into Shasta Dam. If you released less every year the dam would overflow. If you released more every year the dam would be empty. Either way it would not be doing its job.

        To fill the dam an additional 630,000 acre feet of capacity (which I’ll take your number to be accurate) you wouldn’t have to do it in a single year. You definitely wouldn’t fill it when we are in a drought. Yet, you could fill it by simply letting out less water than comes in in a period of wet years. The same way they filled the dam in the first place.

        Per the report you provided (Page 50 Table 1-30) you can see this is exactly what they did in the years from 1945 to 1952. Over this period annual inflow exceeds annual outflow because they were filling the Dam. If you average all the years after that you will get a numbers that on average will deviate around the 5,800,000 as an average depending on whether or not dam levels were increasing or decreasing.

        So, the argument that the dam couldn’t be filled is a figary. There is still a debate about the entire states water issues and where money is best spent to cure them, but an argument based on the fact that the dam couldn’t be filled is false.

        Engineering concerns about the structure are valid and should be investigated by engineers now, not by resurrecting the engineers that built it in the first place.

        I am not convinced that raising the dam is the right thing to do, but your argument on this topic doesn’t hold water (forgive the dam pun).

  7. This was just sent to me by my “Cuz” at the Sierra Club in Sacto; not forgetting the forgotten Native American concerns and the natural drought cycles we have survived for millennia, I found this an interesting commentary:


    Dear Alan Ernesto Phillips,

    Sometimes the activities that occur outside of public view at the Capitol are so ridiculous that it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

    One of the best examples of what might be called a comedy of errors, but is really just a crying shame, are the efforts to pass a water bond in California.

    Back in 2009, led by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the legislature passed a large water package that included a bill to place a water bond on the 2010 ballot. Most environmental groups involved recognized that bond was a bad deal for the environment, a good deal for some large agribusiness interests located on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley (i.e. Westlands Water District), and a great deal for one large and domineering consortium that basically obtains and then sells water to agencies around Southern California (Metropolitan Water District).

    Generally, the environmentalists figured that a few groups would wage a battle against the bad bond at the ballot and would likely win. The bond was so bloated, and filled with what can only politely be referred to as pork, that it was fairly clear that a majority of Californians wouldn’t vote for it.

    At some point along the way, proponents of the bad bond figured out that what the environmentalists perceived would be the voter attitude about the bond was right. They persuaded the legislature to delay the ballot vote so that now, in 2014, we’re all scheduled to finally see the bad bond on the ballot in November.

    That bond has two really big problems and a number of smaller ones. The really big ones include a bloated section that is so craftily designed that its worst aspects are hidden behind a blind of euphemisms. That section would provide $3 billion for spending on “storage infrastructure”.

    In the world of water, storage infrastructure can mean a lot of things, good and bad. The good includes systems designed to improve groundwater percolation, restore and rehabilitate groundwater aquifers, shore up existing surface reservoirs, and even dredge silt loads from existing dams to reduce the demand for new dams.

    However, as the language is crafted in the water bond on November’s ballot, there’s an extraordinary chance that most of that $3 billion for storage infrastructure will be spent on advancing three dam projects that will create irreversible environmental damage and won’t create any new water. That’s right, no new water.

    In short, the dams won’t provide any solutions for water supply, but will cost the public a lot of money. They will harm an already dangerously sensitive environment during what most experts on California water and climate say is a new regimen of extended drought cycles.

    And all of this dam money will be spent through a “continuous appropriation”, which means that once the bond is passed, some state bureaucrats are free to dole out the dam money without having to go back to the legislature to explain how the money is going to be used. That “continuous appropriation” clause is pretty language for no oversight and no accountability.

    Another big problem with the November water bond, is the way it treats the San Francisco Bay Delta. In short, it paves the way for the public to pick up the tab to fix environmental damage caused by water agency and agriculture interests and the giant, useless tunnels they support building to carry more water out of the Delta system. It’s a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for Westlands and MWD. They really, really, really want those tunnels, but really, really, really don’t want to have to take responsibility for paying the appropriate costs of those tunnels—including the environmental fixes. (Those fixes, by the way, won’t fully fix the damage caused by the tunnels.)

    The Sierra Club opposed the water bond when it went through the legislature in 2009. We have continued to oppose it, as have some of our allies, including the League of Women Voters of California, and we recently wrote a joint letter with the League to remind the legislature of this.

    Given that most polling has said that a majority of Californians won’t pass a stupid, bloated water bond that has opposition, a number of legislators have been trying to craft a more reasonable bond that truly responds to the state’s water needs. A couple of good proposals surfaced, and we were even able to support one of them.

    But there was one big problem: To replace the current bad bond on the ballot, any new bond bill needed a two-thirds vote from the legislature. So, like the old days, when it required two-thirds vote to pass a budget, the minority is ruling. The Republicans and some Democrats signaled they would withhold their votes until a few of their favorite items were put into the new bond.

    Guess what those new items are. That’s right: the dam money and the get-out-of-jail-free card.

    So, now the legislative leaders in both houses are trying to craft a bond that draws the holdouts to get to two thirds. In the Senate, that has meant the bond bill we once supported has gone south and may get even worse before it wins the votes it needs to pass. In the Assembly, the crafting is underway and a new product hasn’t yet emerged.

    The shame of all of this is that most people know that the answer to fixing California’s water supply problems rests on not repeating old approaches. We need to build regional resilience. We need investment in recycling projects, groundwater restoration and cleanup, efficiency projects, storm water capture, gray water reuse, and smarter water conservation, including by agriculture.

    These are the sorts of projects that can benefit from a smart bond measure and that will create so-called “new water”. These kinds of expenditures will draw the votes needed to pass a water bond on the ballot.

    Bloated, continuously appropriated funds for dams, and end-runs around Delta protection, will just draw opposition–including ours.


    Kathryn Phillips

    Sierra Club California is the Sacramento-based legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the 13 California chapters of the Sierra Club.

  8. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Great article Dugan. The outflow at Shasta Dam is controlled by many things including an effort to desalinate the Sacramento Delta. I read an article in a recent sport fishing magazine that claimed that last year reservoirs in Southern California were filled with water from Northern California reservoirs when no one predicted such a dry winter. My sister in that area claims that there is no water rationing in her town south of L.A.
    I don’t believe the dam will be raised because of the point that you made about the engineering of this dam. This “build a higher dam” seems like a smoke screen for decisions about water distribution that common people know nothing about and have no control over.
    The one major issue that we are not talking about is a population growth that is not sustainable.
    Thank you for a very thought inspiring article.

  9. Avatar Janice Powell says:


    The idea of raising the Dam is not only figary it’s foolery! Have you every tried to add third layer of cake batter to a two layer cake after it’s been baked? It just makes a big mess and ruins what you had to start with.

    My grandfather, Tom Powell, was the Foreman of the Day Shift at Shasta Dam – he came here after working on Boulder Dam with Frank Crowe and before that Grand Coulee Dam. He knew concrete better than anybody and worked hard to get the pour just right. He never claimed to be an engineer but those engineers would never claim to be able to do what he did either. Your comment, Mr. Gandy, “Engineering concerns about the structure are valid and should be investigated by engineers now, not by resurrecting the engineers that built it in the first place.” is exactly why this DAM raise project will be another multimillion dollar boondoggle. The structure and engineering of Shasta Dam’s base doesn’t need to be re-written … it will not change. The investigation should be aimed at the insane possibility of topping Shasta Dam off with an additional structure that the base wasn’t built for. I have a lot of my grandfather’s books and I came across this one that was printed by the United States Department of the Interior -Bureau of Reclamation, “Dams and Control Works” published in 1954. It’s a very interesting read and has all kinds of statistics regarding the engineering and structural theory behind concrete dams. I have scanned the Shasta Dam chapter and if you’re interested you can read it here: The book ends with “special articles” — Design of Dams and Reservoir Outlets and Spillway Gates.
    these summaries should be of interest to anyone contemplating spending scarce tax dollars on such a foolish project, but I haven’t had the time to scan them yet, dam it.

    By the way, we all understand that our planet only has a limited amount of water, don’t we? I’m just curious where you think that the additional water needed to fill another 14 feet of reservoir would come from? Our weather is already being manipulated so that the rain fall is diverted to the places controlled by the people with the most money….how much will it cost to attempt to fill Shasta?

    Leave it alone….and consider conservation.

    Janice Powell
    Shasta Lake

  10. Avatar JeffG says:

    To play devil’s advocate:

    Kennett Dam was designed to stand over 800′, but chronic shortages of labor and supplies during WWII resulted in the 602′ Shasta Dam we have today. The dam’s foundation was poured in 1938; the main body of the dam took shape in 1940; the attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t until the end of 1941.

    An 800′ dam would offer the potential for nearly 33% more electric energy.

    A construction project of this magnitude would directly provide hundreds of well-paying jobs (and thousands more incidental). Those wages would undoubtedly flow across the northstate economy spurring countless business offshoots which would, in turn, create offshoots of their own.

    The area economy would likely remain buoyed after construction by the subsequent increase in tourism (e.g. “Come see the new Lake Shasta”). An 800′ dam would be the tallest in the United States, & 14th tallest in the world — take that Texas…

    And then there are the water management benefits…

  11. Avatar Jerry Rhodes says:

    Release out of Shasta Dam has more to do with fish habitat in the Sacramento River than likely is being acknowledged, even considering the lack of rainfall that now keeps Shasta Lake low. Remember the massive die-off of the Klamath River Salmon when upriver farmers pulled political strings to take more water than science said was environmentally safe? As was pointed out, the lake has been full few enough times that release over the spillway is a major news and cultural event when it happens. And in drought years, water still must flow to keep the fish alive.

    RE the State of Jefferson: What makes supporters think the other states will have any desire at all to give California two more U.S. Senators, even two that are reliably Republican (for now)?

  12. Avatar mike says:

    Great article Dugan! The water grabbers of southern Calif. are not concerned about anything but greening the desert with suburban expansion and keeping the toilets there flushing. The ag interests in Fresno county obviously feel this as they lose their water allocations during times of short water supplies. Raising the dam is just plain absurd!

  13. Avatar Kim H says:

    ugh most of these comments have no basis in reality or facts. They make me cringe as much as the usual comments from the ‘other side’ in that other local online paper. I appreciate the author writing about these topics. I wish the USBR were consulted re: how often that extra storage would be used. Anyone can do simple math, the USBR knows the constraints and assumptions that affect the answer.

    • Ouch. We NEVER want to be as cringe-worthy as the other online site. A knife to my heart!

      Seriously, though, I invite you to submit a letter to the editor to share your views on the topic.

      You may send it to me at We like less than 700 words, but you may include links galore, as well as a brief author’s bio.

      We look forward to reading what you have to say.

    • Dugan Barr Dugan Barr says:

      I am not sure I understand the comment about wishing the USBR had been consulted. The URL provided at the end of the piece was to a USBR report about Shasta Lake. Since they don’t have a crystal ball, I am not sure how much more light USBR could shed on the issue.
      If USBR has a crystal ball, it seems remarkably cloudy; in Sept, 1977, there were only 631 acre feet of water in Shasta lake. It was predicted that it would take years to fill back up. It did so the next year.

  14. AJacoby AJacoby says:

    This debate on raising the dam(n) brings to mind the story of the Swedish ship, the Vasa. It now resides in a museum in Stockholm, but the story is as follows.

    The king of Sweden was fighting his cousin in Poland over Swedish territory. So, as is still the custom today, he ordered a massive warship to be built in order to frighten the other side into submission.. He even brought in a Dutch architect. After the keel was laid and the ship had been completed up to the gun deck, the king thought it was such a beautiful sight, he ordered an additional gun deck be added. Even though the architect objected that the keel wasn’t designed to support it, the king insisted. He WAS the KING, after all. Upon completion there was much to do about launching the massive pride of the king’s navy. Many dignitaries and their families were invited to be on board for the launch. So, the day came, the ship launched. It traveled a couple of miles into the bay where the wind caught it’s sails . . . and it capsized! A cautionary tale? Perhaps. But it is a true story none the less! What’s that saying about having to repeat history lessons you failed to learn the first time???

  15. GREAT history, heart and insight from Ms. Janice Powell (above)!

    No matter how high you modify Shasta Dam… a “Dead Pool” is dead pool.
    (Look it up…)