Ten­sions heighten over Shasta Dam

White House, Congress side with Cal­i­for­nia grow­ers, but state op­poses project in­tended to meet wa­ter needs

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Carolyn Lochhead

WASHINGTON — Congress and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion are push­ing ahead with a plan to raise a tow­er­ing sym­bol of dam-build­ing’s 20th cen­tury hey­day to meet the wa­ter de­mands of 21st cen­tury Cal­i­for­nia — a project backed by San Joaquin Val­ley grow­ers but op­posed by state of­fi­cials, de­fend­ers of a pro­tected river and an Amer­i­can In­dian tribe whose sa­cred sites would be swamped.

The fight is over Shasta Dam, at 602 feet the fourth-tallest dam in Cal­i­for­nia and the cor­ner­stone of the fed­eral Cen­tral Val­ley Project, which pro­vides wa­ter to cities and farms through­out the state. One of its big­gest cus­tomers is the West­lands Wa­ter Dis­trict in the arid western San Joaquin Val­ley, which dis­trib­utes wa­ter to nu­mer­ous large farms.

With en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port from West­lands, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and Repub­li­cans in Congress want to raise the dam 18½ feet to store more wa­ter and guard against los­ing farm­land to fu­ture

droughts. Some farm­ers in the val­ley re­ceived no wa­ter at all from the Cen­tral Val­ley Project for two straight years dur­ing the five-year drought that ended with the win­ter of 2016-17.

Pro­po­nents also ar­gue that rais­ing Shasta would aid salmon runs dec­i­mated by its orig­i­nal con­struc­tion in the 1940s, by stor­ing more cold wa­ter to help the re­main­ing down­stream fish sur­vive.

Last month, Congress gave the $1.3 bil­lion project a $20 mil­lion cash in­fu­sion for de­sign and other pre­lim­i­nary work, and the In­te­rior Depart­ment de­clared that con­struc­tion would start next year.

The project has been on the boards for years, but Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion shelved it be­cause it would flood part of the McCloud River. Cal­i­for­nia law pro­tects the river as wild and scenic be­cause it sus­tains “one of the finest wild trout fish­eries in the state.” Congress would have to de­clare in sep­a­rate leg­is­la­tion that fed­eral in­ter­est in rais­ing the dam su­per­sedes the state’s author­ity.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is “pretty clearly set­ting up an at­tempt to over­ride state law to build this project,” said Doug Obegi, a wa­ter lawyer with the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, an environmen­tal group. “It hits the holy trin­ity of de­stroy­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can sa­cred sites, vi­o­lat­ing state law and harm­ing fish and wildlife.”

The res­ur­rec­tion of the Shasta project was made pos­si­ble by a 2016 law spon­sored by House Ma­jor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy, RBak­ers­field, and Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, DCalif. It in­structed the in­te­rior sec­re­tary to take the lead on rec­om­mend­ing wa­ter stor­age projects and mov­ing ahead on dam build­ing through­out the West.

Fe­in­stein and McCarthy’s bill was added as a rider to broad wa­ter leg­is­la­tion over the op­po­si­tion of for­mer Sen. Bar­bara Boxer, a Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat who spent her last mo­ments in of­fice try­ing to block it.

Act­ing un­der this new author­ity, In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke put Shasta at the top of his list. McCarthy then in­serted the $20 mil­lion that Zinke re­quested for Shasta in a catch-all spend­ing bill that Congress passed last month.

John Laird, Cal­i­for­nia’s sec­re­tary of nat­u­ral re­sources, asked that law­mak­ers not pur­sue the project, “which dis­re­gards Cal­i­for­nia law, and in­stead work with the state” on other wa­ter mea­sures the state views as more wor­thy.

Dam pro­po­nents ar­gue that the McCloud River would suf­fer no ma­jor harm. They say only two-thirds of a mile of the river would be in­un­dated, and then only in wet years.

The added stor­age would pro­vide wa­ter not just to farms in the San Joaquin Val­ley, but also to Bay Area cities that rely on Shasta wa­ter, they ar­gue.

“En­larg­ing Shasta Dam will pro­vide wa­ter sup­ply, wa­ter qual­ity and fish­ery ben­e­fits,” said Tom Birm­ing­ham, gen­eral man­ager of the West­lands Wa­ter Dis­trict.

West­lands sup­ports rais­ing the dam “for the sim­ple rea­son that it is the most cost-ef­fec­tive sur­face wa­ter stor­age project cur­rently be­ing eval­u­ated in the state,” Birm­ing­ham said.

Rais­ing Shasta Dam is in­deed among the cheap­est of the four big dam projects that the state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments have ex­am­ined for Cal­i­for­nia. All are so ex­pen­sive that of­fi­cials think two at most could be built.

The Cal­i­for­nia Wa­ter Com­mis­sion blocked Shasta from re­ceiv­ing any of the $2.7 bil­lion in fund­ing un­der Propo­si­tion 1, a bal­lot mea­sure vot­ers ap­proved in 2014 to in­crease the state’s wa­ter stor­age. The com­mis­sion is con­sid­er­ing three other big dam projects among 11 wa­ter stor­age pro­pos­als. All would be in com­pe­ti­tion with Shasta for fed­eral dol­lars.

Shasta pro­vides 40 per­cent of the Cen­tral Val­ley Project’s reser­voir ca­pac­ity. Rais­ing it would en­large its max­i­mum level by 634,000 acre-feet, or about 13 per­cent.

But that fig­ure ex­ag­ger­ates how much wa­ter rais­ing the dam would de­liver. Reser­voirs don’t al­ways fill, and most of the avail­able wa­ter is al­ready cap­tured by the ex­ist­ing dam. The fed­eral Bureau of Recla­ma­tion, which op­er­ates the dam, es­ti­mates that rais­ing Shasta Dam would in­crease wa­ter de­liv­er­ies by 51,300 acre-feet a year on av­er­age, and less dur­ing droughts.

“So it’s not a very good deal, which is why these projects have not gone any­where,” said Ron Stork, se­nior pol­icy ad­vo­cate for the environmen­tal group Friends of the River, which op­poses the project.

Rais­ing the dam also would in­un­date most of what re­mains of the sa­cred sites of the Win­nemem Wintu tribe, whose lands were flooded when the orig­i­nal dam was built, said tribal Chief Caleen Sisk.

The tribe, which once num­bered an es­ti­mated 14,000 peo­ple, is down to 126 mem­bers. Sisk said many of them live in Red­ding or Sacra­mento be­cause their an­ces­tral land was flooded and its fish runs blocked by the dam.

The sa­cred sites in­clude dance grounds, heal­ing rocks and pools in the river. “These all have sig­nif­i­cant spir­i­tual rev­er­ence to the Win­nemem peo­ple,” Sisk said.

Rais­ing the dam “is go­ing to flood out what we have left,” said Gary Mulc­a­hey, a tribe mem­ber. “Peo­ple are wait­ing with a fin­ger on the trig­ger to file a law­suit as soon as any de­ci­sion is made.”

Cal­i­for­nia Democrats said the $20 mil­lion be­ing spent on con­struc­tion plan­ing is a waste of tax­payer money be­cause the project will never get state per­mits to be­gin pour­ing con­crete. But Congress has the right to pre­empt state law, and ul­ti­mately it could be up to the courts to de­cide whose author­ity pre­vails on the Shasta project.

“There are peo­ple who are op­posed to any project that will help sus­tain ir­ri­gated agri­cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly on the west side of the San Joaquin Val­ley,” West­lands’ Birm­ing­ham said. “Environmen­tal groups can and will file law­suits for many of­ten spu­ri­ous rea­sons. Whether they win those is an­other ques­tion.”

West­lands bought the 3,000-acre Bol­li­bokka Fish­ing Club along the McCloud River in 2007 in an­tic­i­pa­tion of rais­ing the dam, pay­ing $35 mil­lion for the prop­erty. It con­tains many Win­nemem Wintu sites and would be in­un­dated by the dam rais­ing.

In a con­gres­sional hear­ing last month, Zinke as­sured Rep. Jared Huff­man, D-San Rafael, who op­poses the project, that none of the $20 mil­lion Congress ap­proved will be spent buy­ing the prop­erty from West­lands.

West­lands isn’t the only dis­trict that would wel­come the Shasta ex­pan­sion. The San Luis and Delta Men­dota Wa­ter Author­ity, which sup­plies wa­ter to Santa Clara County, told fed­eral of­fi­cials that it wanted to share the cost of rais­ing Shasta dam. Do­ing so would pro­vide a crit­i­cal state part­ner for the project.

Seven environmen­tal groups shot off a warn­ing let­ter to the agency, say­ing wa­ter dis­tricts are agen­cies of the state and are banned from par­tic­i­pat­ing in a project that “vi­o­lates Cal­i­for­nia law.”

“It would have been nicer to see a let­ter com­ing that’s more, ‘Let’s have a di­a­logue and sit down and fig­ure out are there paths for­ward,’ in­stead of thinly veiled threats to sue peo­ple,” said Can­non Michael, chair­man of the San Luis and Delta Men­dota agency.

Michael said the dam has to be raised not just to help farms, but also fish.

Although dams are the chief cul­prit be­hind the calami­tous de­cline of the state’s na­tive fish species, three-quar­ters of which are threat­ened, the Bureau of Recla­ma­tion ar­gues that dams can help fish by mim­ick­ing na­ture’s spring­time in­flux of cold wa­ter into rivers and streams. Pro­vid­ing cold wa­ter to salmon has be­come one of Shasta reser­voir’s key func­tions, and the bureau lists help­ing fish as one of the main ben­e­fits of rais­ing the dam.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice dis­agreed, say­ing in doc­u­ments ob­tained by environmen­tal groups that the ben­e­fit to fish was “not sub­stan­tial” and that fur­ther re­strict­ing the Sacra­mento, McCloud and Pitt rivers that flow into the reser­voir would in­flict more dam­age.

Michael said cli­mate change is mak­ing it harder for both fish and farms to sur­vive, and that rais­ing Shasta Dam would help both.

“We know cli­mate change is go­ing to make it al­most im­pos­si­ble for (fresh­wa­ter) fish to sur­vive in the Sacra­mento River as the tem­per­a­tures con­tinue to warm,” he said. Dam op­er­a­tors are “tak­ing the lion’s share of Shasta for cold wa­ter, and it still doesn’t ap­pear it’s go­ing to be enough if we con­tinue with cli­mate change.”

There is one dam­rais­ing project that has drawn en­thu­si­as­tic back­ing from environmen­tal groups: ex­pan­sion of the Los Va­que­ros reser­voir near Liver­more. It prom­ises to be a source of wa­ter for San Joaquin Val­ley wildlife refuges that of­ten go dry in drought years.

“The wildlife refuges in the San Joaquin Val­ley never re­ceive all the wa­ter they need to sup­port Pa­cific Fly­way birds and other wet­lands crea­tures,” said Rachel Zwill­inger, wa­ter pol­icy ad­viser for the environmen­tal group De­fend­ers of Wildlife.

Op­po­nents of rais­ing Shasta Dam fear it will di­vert money from such projects.

“This project was dead,” said Stork of Friends of the River. “Some peo­ple were thank­ful for that be­cause their project then has a chance for more money.

“Then the elec­tion hap­pened.”

Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and Repub­li­cans want to raise the height of Shasta Dam by 18½ feet.

JOHN BLANCHArD / THE CHrON­I­CLE

3 De­tail 0 Cen­tral Val­ley Project MILES 10 5 S c r a m e n t o R i v e r 97 Dun­smuir MOuNt SHAstA 89 McCloud River Shasta Lake 44

Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle

Rais­ing Shasta Dam’s height would af­fect busi­nesses like the Bay Bridge Ma­rina with its house­boats and in­un­date sa­cred In­dian sites.

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