California Republicans Fighting Again to Raise the Shasta Dam. Will State Law Prevent It?

The Shasta Dam started to leak at the end of May after the snowpack from the wet winter started melting. To Californians who have suffered decades of drought, that was good news.

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The Shasta reservoir, California’s largest, sends water to farmers and families in the Central Valley, where a third of the nation’s produce is grown. It almost reached capacity after years of not filling up. At its peak, Shasta Lake can hold more than 4.5 million acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is the annual consumption for two average households.)

Raising the dam, located on the upper Sacramento River northwest of Redding, to increase Shasta reservoir’s capacity has long been on the list of some federal lawmakers. The 18.5-foot rise would provide 634,000 more acre-feet of water per year, legislators say, and help ensure Central Valley farmers have a steadier and fuller supply.

But that assumes there will always be enough precipitation to fill Lake Shasta, which historically has not been the case. At that, environmentalists say it would be a drop in the bucket for the cost — at least $1.4 billion, per outdated estimates. And raising the 80-year-old dam risks flooding sacred Native American lands and harming local habitats.

With the House of Representatives in Republican control, and Bakersfield Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker, there could be more federal funding for a taller Shasta Dam if a spending package passes.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, who is sponsoring legislation to fund the project, said it was “regarded as the most affordable, cost efficient expansion of water infrastructure for the state of California on the table right now.”

California itself has opposed the plan, and in a letter to congressional leaders, dozens of environmental groups wrote that a taller dam would “harm Native American Tribes, salmon fishermen, and the environment, as well as violate state law.”


The potential for new funding is the latest chapter in the project’s long, heavily-litigated history.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, part of the Interior Department which oversees federal water issues, first proposed raising the dam in the late 1970s, even though it appeared to be at odds with the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a law that protects the free flow of certain rivers.

Support picked up under President Donald Trump — whose administration claimed the project would not break the law — only to fizzle under lawsuits from environmentalists and the state’s attorney general.

The project stalled after legal challenges forced water distributor Westlands Water District to withdraw in 2019.

Local groups are required to pay half of the cost under federal rules. Westlands, which serves farmers and rural communities in Fresno and Kings counties, agreed to do an environmental review for the project which would seemingly benefit agricultural producers there.

Then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had been the district’s lawyer and lobbyist.

Westlands agreed to pull out in a 2019 settlement with then-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and environmentalists, who sued contending that the district violated state laws that ascertain the free flow of rivers with “extraordinary scenic, recreational, fishery, or wildlife values.”

Alison Febbo, Westlands’ new general manager who was not there at this time, said the district supports bolstered water infrastructure in California, but not by breaking any state laws. A Shasta Dam raise would need to address the concerns of various groups and stakeholders.

The California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects the McCloud River and its wild trout fishery, which could be affected by raising the Shasta Dam. The act prevented the state group from helping the Bureau.

Several years later, the Bureau is still without local aid.

“There have been no recent actions to accelerate or progress the project given the lack of funding to support the project and therefore no updated information has been developed,” Tara Jane Campbell Miranda, a spokeswoman for the agency, wrote in response to questions about the project.

The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, meant to stimulate public works projects, blocked federal funds from going to the Shasta Dam raise.

“This sticks in Mr. McCarthy’s craw and no doubt Secretary Bernhardt’s craw who was telling the adoring crowds in Fresno that they were about to pull this one off,” said Ron Stork, the senior policy advocate at Friends of the River, a California conservation group that opposes the dam raise.

Click here to read the full article in the Fresno Bee

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