2021 UPDATE: The demise of the Trump Administration has put a hold on the controversial proposal to raise Shasta Dam and expand the largest reservoir in California. As the federal sponsor of the project, the Bureau of Reclamation completed a final Environmental Impact Statement in 2020, but to date the agency has not produced a Record of Decision approving the dam raise. The project also requires funding – the Bureau estimates that the Shasta Dam raise and reservoir expansion will cost at least $1.4 billion, but it will likely cost more. Under federal protocols, it also needs a local sponsor. In addition, the project EIS makes it clear that the Bureau cares not that the segment of the McCloud that would drown under the expanded reservoir is protected under state law.
Desperate for additional northern California water to grow almonds and pistachios in the southern Central Valley, the Westlands Water District tried to become the project’s local sponsor. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued Westlands, noting that state law prohibits any state entity (including water districts organized under state law) from aiding a project that would result in harming the river. In 2019, Westlands capitulated and signed a settlement agreement barring the district from undertaking any action that would implement the dam raise and reservoir expansion.
At this time, the Biden Administration’s position on the Shasta Dam raise and reservoir expansion is unknown. Early in December 2021, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla submitted a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland urging her to prioritize water projects in California as her Department considers how to spend the $8.3 billion western water infrastructure funding in President Biden’s infrastructure bill, which was approved by Congress in November 2021.
The Feinstein/Padilla letter did not mention the Shasta dam raise and reservoir expansion, but it did support funding for the controversial Sites Offstream Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley and the proposed Pacheco Dam, which would flood part of Henry Coe State Park. CalWild and other conservation groups are monitoring implementation of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure package. Whether the package will fund water projects like the Shasta Dam raise, despite its illegality under state law, is unknown.
ORIGINAL POST: At the far northern edge of California’s Central Valley lies the Shasta Reservoir (aka Shasta Lake), a byproduct of the Shasta Dam (Dam) that was completed in 1945 in order to provide storage from flows of the Sacramento River watershed. Currently, the Dam stands as the eighth tallest in the U.S. at approximately 602 feet. Since the late 1990s, the Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) has proposed to increase the Dam’s height, currently calling for up to an 18.5-foot increase. If the increase is implemented, it would wreak havoc on river resources, sensitive and threatened wildlife species, and would nearly eliminate remaining sacred and cultural tribal sites for the local Indigenous population.
In terms of rivers, it would periodically inundate more than two-thirds of a mile of the McCloud and upper Sacramento Rivers, streams identified as potential National Wild & Scenic Rivers by the U.S. Forest Service. The California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act also protects the McCloud from new or expanded dams and reservoirs. Part of the reason these protections exist is because of the known wild trout fisheries on the McCloud River. While Dam proponents argue that the Dam raise would benefit salmon, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the benefits to salmon provided by the dam raise would be “negligible or slightly negative”. It would likely harm several salmon species within the Sacramento River watershed including the federally endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon and would degrade important habitat.
Other sensitive and threatened species that would be potentially impacted by the Dam raise include the Shasta snow-wreath — a species that CalWild seeks to protect and a current candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA)— which would have portions of its population inundated due to the Dam raise. Not quite as directly impacted but nonetheless just as potentially harmed by the Dam raise is the Western yellow-billed cuckoo, a species protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act that would lose habitat along the Sacramento River if the project were to move forward. Both of these potentially impacted species are part of a longer list that we hope will not have to face the consequences of another ill-conceived dam project.
The proposed Dam raise would devastate the Winnemem Wintu tribe. The tribe’s traditional territory included the east and west sides of the upper Sacramento River watershed, the McCloud River, Squaw Creek, and portions of the Pit River. The construction of Shasta Dam submerged a majority of their culturally relevant sites and the Dam raise would eliminate many of the remaining sites, including a burial ground and prayer rock where critical ceremonies are held.
In addition to all of these resources being lost, the Dam raise will cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars and would marginally increase California’s statewide surface water supply by less than one percent. All things considered, if the Shasta Dam raise were to move forward, nationally significant river resources, threatened wildlife and plants, and Indigenous cultural values would all be lost, without any significant benefit to Californians.
The Trump Administration is moving forward with the Shasta Dam raise and reservoir enlargement despite the fact that the project violates state law protecting the McCloud River. Using federal funding from the Watershed Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, the Bureau recently completed an expedited supplemental EIS for the project, where it endeavored to explain away the project’s violations of state and federal law, including the Clean Water Act. Fortunately, the California Water Commission is prohibited from funding the project by state law. The project may well end up in court or it may die with the last gasps of the outgoing Trump administration.