So let’s raise the dam?

What do we do in California to avoid making hard choices about sharing a limited resource? We build something bigger to store or move water.

The Bureau of Reclamation wants to add 18.5 feet to the top of Shasta Dam, a project that would, it is claimed, increase storage capacity 14 percent, provide drinking water to about 2 million people, and irrigate about 3 million acres of farmland, all while increasing survival of salmon populations in the upper Sacramento River. Cost: $1.07 billion for this decade-old expansion plan. An article from this past April summarizes the project.

The Bureau is talking about improving the “operational flexibility” for things like water temperature and water quality in the Delta watershed – an indication that this project is linked to operation of the proposed Peripheral Tunnels. In fact, even Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, has suggested that increasing storage capacity by raising Shasta Dam only makes sense in conjunction with improving the Delta for water exports, since the amount of increase in California’s overall water supply is actually extremely small.

An article by journalist Dan Bacher summarizes the public response to this dam proposal at a meeting in Redding earlier this month. Some concerns expresses there:

• The dam raise will inundate sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who have never been compensated for the land already taken from them and inundated when Shasta Dam was built.
• A variety of recreational and other businesses will face dislocation and permanent loss of income.
• The project would provide water to the federal Central Valley Project and deliver some exported water to the San Joaquin Valley, the East Bay Area, and Glenn and Colusa counties, but would not satisfy all contracts or Southern California water users.
• The project doesn’t include a plan to get salmon above the dam to the McCloud River, where the Winnemem Wintu have been asking to have winter run Chinook salmon reintroduced. (Shasta Dam eliminated the majority of historical spawning habitat for winter-run salmon.)

Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk told Bureau officials that the current cold water pool management isn’t producing the doubling of salmon populations as required by law under the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992 (CVPIA). (In fact, a May analysis by the Golden Gate Salmon Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the salmon fishery is achieving only 20 percent of the population goal set by law.)

“How do you expect extending the cold water pool for salmon at Shasta will produce more salmon when the current cold water pool management hasn’t made more fish?” Sisk said.

One resident noted that the lake has been filled only 11 times in its 59 years of existence – 19 percent of the time. This suggests that the problem is not reservoir capacity but rather the way the dam is operated.

The system is over-subscribed, and it only takes a dry year – not even an actual drought – to show how fish, agriculture, and users all over California will suffer from the disastrously short-sighted water management decisions of the past half century.

The Bureau of Reclamation is accepting comments on the draft EIS (environmental impact statement) for this project until September 30. Documents are here.

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