Until recently, the floodgates appeared wide-open on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s effort to raise the height of Shasta Dam by 18 ½ feet. Since Congress allocated $20 million in pre-construction funding for the project last spring, planning efforts have been moving at a rapid pace.
Core samples have been taken of the 602-ft. tall arched-gravity dam to determine if it can bear the load of the steel and concrete “cap” –including eight new spillways replacing the original three, that will be placed on top of it.
Prospective designs are due by May and the Bureau expects to hire a contractor by the end of the year. If completed on schedule in 2024, the $1.3 billion Shasta Dam Raise project will increase Shasta Lake’s present capacity of 4.5 million acre feet by 630,000 acre feet.
That’s a significant chunk of water added to the Central Valley Project’s present 9-million acre feet of storage. This massive system of dams, reservoirs, power plants, rivers and canals includes Shasta Lake and Lake Trinity and their respective dams and is capable of conveying water hundreds of miles south to Fresno farmers or west to cool salmon and trout in the Klamath River.
The Central Valley Project and its twin, the State Water Project, are legitimate marvels of 20th century can-do engineering. Together, they form the state’s man-made circulatory system, conveying water from northern California to Central Valley farmers and millions of suburban and urban users in Los Angeles, San Diego and beyond.
The heart of this system is two enormous sets of pumps, one federal and one state, located in the southern Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta near Tracy.
For nearly a half-century, these pumps have been sucking water from the Sacramento River and its tributaries 30 miles across the delta through an elaborate series of gates, locks and levees. It is then pumped southward, up to 6 million acre feet annually, through canals and aqueducts.
Water from the two projects has turned the arid Central Valley desert into an agricultural powerhouse and slaked the thirst of southern California’s ever-growing population for three generations.
But as predicted by environmentalists, decades of pumping has wreaked havoc on the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, driving the endangered delta smelt, a major food source for salmon returning from the sea, to the brink of extinction, along with several species of endangered or threatened salmon. The north coast salmon fishery is threatened with collapse.
As fresh water has been pumped from the delta, saltwater has intruded, turning the water brackish and making it unsuitable for irrigation or wildlife habitat. As climate change accelerates and the sea level rises in coming decades, sloshing up against and inundating the delta’s fragile levee system, the water feeding the pumps may become too salty to send down south.
Protecting southern California’s water supply from certain seawater intrusion in the coming decades is one of the primary reasons outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown has urgently pitched the California Water Fix during his past eight years in office. On his way out the door, he’s still pitching it, cutting deals with the Trump administration to relax environmental regulations to get his legacy project built, or at least started.
Similarly, House Republicans, along with Democratic allies, managed to allocate $20 million for the Shasta Dam Raise last spring, while all that “make America great again” mojo was still in the air. The fact that the state of California expressed virtually zero interest in the project, which violates sections of the state’s Wild and Scenic River Act, did not deter them.
And so, almost incredibly given the facts, the rush to expand California’s water delivery system is back on.
My father is a retired USBR power plant operator. I grew up on water projects ranging from American Falls, Idaho to Grand Coulee Dam, Washington to Shasta Dam. I’ve been in awe of the engineering required for such projects since I was a kid and the operators at American Falls would periodically shut the valves and gates, draining the Snake River dry downstream as far as the eye could see.
Before he retired, Dad got his hands on the controls of the Central Valley Project in Sacramento, wheeling water to farmers, people and fish populations up and down the state.
Most of the projects I lived near were conceived during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal, and I was raised with a working class reverence for FDR and the attitude that all water projects are essentially good, whether their purpose was to store water or generate electricity or promote economic activity.
I’ve since come to learn that no water project is essentially good; each has its own set of positive and negative trade-offs. For example, while the Central Valley blooms and Los Angeles thrives, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta and northern California’s salmon fishery are imperiled.
In mid-December, I attended a meeting at the Holiday Inn in Redding that ultimately turned out to be hosted by the infamous Fresno-based Westlands Water District. The Bureau will only pay for half of the Shasta Dam Raise project’s $1.3 billion price tag, and Westlands has offered $200 million for its share of the water.
The informational meeting was conducted by members of Stantec, an environmental consulting firm hired by Westlands to complete an environmental impact report on the project as required by state law, should the project be eventually approved by the state. A brief presentation and various placards placed about the room emphasized the 18 ½-ft. dam raise is necessary to provide a larger, more reliable pool of water for both imperiled salmon and farmers to draw upon.
In the public comments period afterward, a majority of the audience, which included members of Friends of the River and the Winnemen Wintu Tribe, voiced opposition to the project, much of it on solid ground.
Raising the dam will create 630,000 acre feet of storage capacity, but as Friends of the River points out on its website, the project is expected to deliver an average of just 53,000 extra acre feet annually. That’s not a lot of water for a $1.3 billion project that will dramatically impact the region during and after its construction.
When full, the 20 ½-ft. rise in Shasta Lake’s elevation will flood 2500 acres around the lake’s perimeter and intrude upon the McCloud River in violation of state law, which is why there’s currently no state funding for the project.
Bridges will have to be raised and highways contoured to the new height. Hundreds of homeowners and scores of businesses will have to be relocated, bought out or forced out by eminent domain.
As usual, the Winnemen Wintu Tribe, forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland when Shasta Dam was completed in the 1940s, gets the short end of the stick. Much of what’s left of their territory along the banks of the McCloud River will be, at times, submerged if the project is completed.
Compounding the insult, the land is owned by Westlands, which bought it a decade ago in anticipation that the long-shelved Shasta Dam Raise project might someday go through if the land wasn’t developed.
Other strikes against the project include two environmental studies on the salmon population, one conducted by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife for the Bureau and the other by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The studies found that out of a variety of choices, ranging from a 6-ft dam extension to the proposed 18 ½ ft. raise, the best option as far as the health of the salmon is concerned is “no project.”
Yet another strike came just a week before the Holiday Inn meeting, when the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco in order to protect three species of salamanders that live around Lake Shasta under the federal Endangered Species Act.
For me, the lawsuit marked the first sign of resistance to the resurrected project, which had been rolling along with very little negative publicity.
But in reality the resistance has been here all along, at least since the Bureau somewhat bombastically proposed to raise Shasta Dam by 200 feet in the 1980s. At the same time, Gov. Jerry Brown, during his first two terms in office, proposed another gargantuan water project, a 35-mile peripheral canal that would circumvent the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta—just as Brown’s Twin Tunnels propose to do today.
The fact that neither one of these projects, the Shasta Dam Raise or the peripheral canal/twin tunnels, has ever been started, let alone completed, is in large part due to the efforts of national, state and local environmental groups, recreational and commercial fishermen and grassroots activists who’ve risen up in communities negatively affected by big water projects.
Collectively, they brought the era of big California water projects to an end—until now.
Anthropogenic climate change has thrown a wildcard into the mix. According to an alarming study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reported by the San Jose Mercury News the day after the Holiday Inn meeting, the Sierra Nevada snow pack is expected to shrink by nearly 80 percent by the turn of the century.
If the climate science is correct, the 2012-2017 California drought is merely a mild precursor to hotter, drier weather in the spring and summer punctuated by infrequent super storms in warmer falls and winters that can produce rain and run-off that exceed the capacity of existing dams, as occurred with the Oroville Dam in 2017.
The northern California snow melt is critical to southern California’s water supply and currently peaks around April 1. By 2100, it’s expected to peak by March 1. Droughts will become more frequent and prolonged. Seawater will continue to inundate the delta. Eventually the system will fail. Without projects like the Twin Tunnels and the Shasta Dam Raise, southern California’s water supply is in dire jeopardy.
We’ve come to a moment my father, the retired USBR operator, and I have argued about for decades. Who gets the water? The people, the farmers of the Central Valley and the citizens of southern California’s sprawling metropolis, or the fish, the salmon, the threatened canary in the coal mine signaling we’ve overstepped our bounds?
“Screw the fish,” Dad always used to say, back before climate change became one of his primary concerns. That reply would often send me into delirious paroxysms—in part because Dad was an avid recreational fisherman and I was an ardent environmentalist—that eventually caused Mom to ban him and me from discussing the subject in her home.
Now, with what we both know about climate change, we’re more on the same page.
One of the Bureau’s stated goals for the Shasta Dam Raise project, providing a more reliable water supply to Central Valley agricultural interests, is entirely dependent on completion of the Twin Tunnels. Without those tunnels, it’s quite probable there will be no way to convey the water south in the near future.
That means the end of life in California as it has persisted for at least the past 50 years, and for once, my father and I have been rendered speechless.
As the climate warms, there’s no guarantee that Shasta Lake will even reach its proposed expanded capacity on a regular basis. Even when it does, the increase will be meaningless for southern California water interests if the Twin Tunnels aren’t built.
If the Twin Tunnels are built, the project will almost assuredly hasten the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta’s demise as well as the collapse of northern California’s recreational and commercial salmon fishing industry. The urge to provide people with water will trump the need to protect the environment.
That’s a hell of a trade-off to prolong Western Civilization, the driving impulse behind the MAGA movement that has breathed new life into California’s extensive statewide network of water projects.
That’s why I’ve got the blues.
There’s no easy way out of this predicament. A classic California water war is brewing. Public comment on Westland’s EIR remains open until January 14. You can put your two cents in here.
Happy New Year!