Shasta Dam Sits at the Center of California’s Water Wars. So Will They Raise It?

The water levels of Shasta Lake currently sit at the highest the’ve been in four years. Photos circulating the internet show a lake brimming with water, and comment section warriors continue to point at how the government will waste the surplus of water instead of saving it for the inevitable droughts California will see in the future.

“Too bad Newsom will send all this water to the ocean,” said a commenter on a photo of the lake posted on our social media pages.

Of course, this comment is misguided since it’s actually the federal government, not state officials, who control the water flows of Shasta Dam. But it does bring local water frustrations to the forefront – how is California investing in legitimate water storage programs to help mitigate future drought?

For some, that answer is simple – raise Shasta Dam.

The proposal to raise the Shasta Dam was introduced during the Trump administration and has been a topic of interest and mystery since its acceleration in 2018. The project has become a contentious issue, dividing environmentalists, tribal nations, and water agencies, and currently sits in a state of flux.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s plan aims to increase the height of the dam by 18.5 feet, which would expand the reservoir’s capacity by more than 600,000 acre-feet. The primary goal of the project is to improve water storage capabilities for the state, which proponents argue is crucial in the face of increasing water demand and fluctuating weather patterns due to climate change.

So should they raise Shasta Dam? And when could the project come to fruition?

Bi-Partisan Support for Raising Shasta Dam

In the midst of ongoing debates about the dam, Congressional Republicans, spearheaded by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), attempted to sway California Governor Gavin Newsom’s stance on the Shasta Dam project in 2022.

In a letter to Newsom, they stated that raising the Shasta Dam would enhance the consistency of water supply for a variety of purposes, including agriculture, urban use, industrial applications, and environmental needs. They added that it would also improve the water temperature and quality in the Sacramento River downstream of the dam, enhancing salmon survival rates. It would also boost hydroelectric power generation and lessen the risk of flood damage in the valley.

The Republicans pointed out that Newsom seemed to oppose the project due to assumptions that it would negatively affect the McCloud River’s free-flowing condition or its wild trout fishery. However, they contended that no unbiased, scientific analysis had been carried out to prove that raising the dam by 18.5 feet would indeed affect the McCloud River in this way.

The letter further argued that numerous influential Democrats, including ex-President Bill Clinton and former California Governor Gray Davis, had previously aligned with Republicans on the issue of raising the dam. They urged Newsom to reassess his stance on the dam, and suggested that he let local water districts collaborate with the Bureau of Reclamation to expedite the project, as well as take action within the state to move the project forward.

Celina Powell, a water projects supervisor working in four western states, commented on Newsom’s indecisive stance on the Shasta Dam to the Globe.

“Newsom has shown inconsistency in his views on the Shasta Dam,” she said. “While he has expressed opposition to enlarging the dam, he has also acknowledged California’s need for additional reservoirs and water storage. This presents a significant opportunity, something many people desire, but he’s not taking definitive action.”

Opposition to Raising Shasta Dam

Despite support from local residents and national politicians alike, this proposal has faced significant opposition from various organizations. One of the primary concerns is its potential impact on the local salmon population. The Shasta Dam plays a crucial role in maintaining the water temperature of the Sacramento River, which is a critical habitat for the salmon. Raising the dam could disrupt this delicate balance and potentially further decimate the salmon population in the area.

The state of California has also expressed its opposition to the project, citing legal restrictions that prohibit any construction that could negatively impact a free-flowing river system. This is a clear reference to the McCloud River, which feeds into the Shasta Lake and is protected under state law due to its cultural and ecological significance.

The California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has been the major obstacle to the project, with water agencies even lobbying to have the law changed for years. Westlands Water District, a powerful water lobbying group, has been so committed to the project that they even bought 3,000 acres of land along the McCloud River, including the Bollibokka Fly Fishing Club, with hope their ownership could help sway the interpretation of the law.

The project has also been met with resistance from local Native American tribes. They argue that the dam’s expansion would inundate sacred sites and disrupt the local ecosystem, causing irreparable harm.

When the Shasta Dam was built in the 1940’s, the Winnemen Wintu tribe lost their homes, burial sites, sacred places and all runs of native salmon to the raised water along the McCloud River. A sacred part of the tribe’s culture, Puberty Rock, is already half submerged under water during higher water levels. Raising the water level would submerge the sacred monument forever, ostensibly erasing the physical legacy of the tribe.

Where We Stand Today

At the end of the day, the fate of Shasta Dam remains a fight between state and federal government, placing further development in a holding pattern.

Despite the opposition, the Bureau of Reclamation is apparently still working on the project, although there has been no update from the federal government since 2020. The final decision on the project’s future is pending, with ongoing debates and legal battles set to shape the outcome.

The proposal to raise the Shasta Dam stands at a crossroads, with its future hanging in the balance. The tension between the need for increased water storage and the commitment to preserving environmental and cultural resources represents a significant challenge that will undoubtedly shape the future of water management in California.

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