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Ghosts of the Water Bond

There was more for-sure money in the water bond to prevent water storage than to create new water storage

Feb 14, 2013

The water bond of 2010, 2012 and now 2014 had a lot of pork in it, but it also had a lot of other stuff that we're still learning about right to this day. We believe the most important element of a water bond should be new storage, preferably dams. The water bond had some money in it potentially for dams, but not for sure. There was some for-sure money for dam removal on the Klamath River. And now we find that there was also language to prevent increasing the height of Shasta Dam. That's right. There was more for-sure money in the water bond to prevent water storage than to create new water storage. Take a look at the story below and you'll see how U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, helped draft the original water bond bill in 2009 when he was a state assemblyman. He said the prohibition against using money for work on Shasta Dam has been included in previous water bonds approved by voters. A bill currently in the state Legislature to put a statewide water bond on the November 2014 ballot refers to the Shasta Dam clause and prohibits using any of the bond money on efforts to raise the dam. Huffman was also a Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the environmental organization that sued the federal government and created the loss of water supplies for farmers who use the San Joaquin River. The NRDC continues their assault on all areas of farm water.

And, of course, a recent story told how Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg says Democrats are now "free to rewrite an $11 billion water bond set to go before voters in 2014." According to the article "Republicans had insisted on including the possibility of building new dams when the bipartisan package was approved by lawmakers in 2009, while Democrats generally favored alternatives such as cleaning up contaminated groundwater and increasing conservation efforts." How dare those darn Republicans putting pesky dams in a water bond?



McCloud River takes central role in dam-raising proposal    

Tucked up along the border of Shasta and Siskiyou counties, the McCloud River doesn’t wind through any cities or get the attention of motorists by sidling up to major roads. Instead, the river sticks to the canyons of forested mountains.

The nearest town is the southern Siskiyou community of McCloud, population 1,100, about six miles away. Highway 89 veers near only the upper portions of the river before it flows south into Shasta County.

What parts of the river are accessible to the public are reached by remote and winding mountain roads. Most of the stretch south of Lake McCloud flows through private property before it empties into the upper reaches of Lake Shasta.

While the McCloud geographically is off the beaten path, its status as a wild and scenic river moves it closer to the center of the web of California’s water politics.

The Westlands Water District and Metropolitan Water District, two rich and powerful south state water agencies interested in raising the height of Shasta Dam have the McCloud River in its sights.

The law governing the river’s status forbids any state agency from planning for or building anything that would affect the river. The law also specifically says the state can’t spend money on proposals to raise Shasta Dam.

A U.S. Bureau of Reclamation draft report released last year said it would be economically feasible to raise the dam, but two issues were unresolved: the McCloud’s wild and scenic status and the numerous Winnemem Wintu sacred sites along the river.

State legislation to place an $11.1 billion statewide water bond before voters next year includes a clause that specifically forbids using any of the money to increase the height of the dam because of how it might affect the McCloud River.

For decades, the bureau, which operates the dam, has looked at raising the structure to ensure a more reliable source of water for salmon and steelhead trout, as well as farms and cities downstream.

But river advocates say raising the dam would harm the river and further degrade a priceless trout fishery.

Curtis Knight, Mt. Shasta Region manager of California Trout, said his agency has placed a high priority on preserving and protecting the river.            

Raising the height of the dam would potentially inundate an additional 25 acres of the river over an area extending about two miles upstream of the McCloud River Bridge, part of the wild and scenic portion of the river.

While the bureau says salmon and steelhead in the Sacramento River system would benefit from the project, officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have a different point of view.

“The service doesn’t necessarily agree with raising Shasta Dam being an improvement for the fish,” said Robert Moler, a spokesman for the service. The salmon and steelhead would benefit from the project during critically dry years, but in years with normal precipitation, the dam would not be good for the fish, based on the bureau’s own predictions, he said.

“In about 90 percent of the years, there would be no benefit to anadromous fish survival,” according to a draft fish and wildlife report written to accompany the bureau’s assessment of the dam.

Other than consulting with the bureau on the proposal several years ago, the National Marine Fisheries Service has had little involvement with the dam project, said Jim Milbury, a spokesman for the service.

“More water is always good for fish, that’s for sure, but we haven’t had the resources to review those documents,” Milbury said, referring to environmental reports on raising the dam.

Dry years

A higher dam would allow greater water reliability during drought years, especially as the water demand grows along with the state population, said Louis Moore, a bureau spokesman.

“We’ve just seen it recently, where in 2010-11 we had a wet year and then nothing” the following year, he said, referring to the drought conditions in 2011-12. More water stored in Lake Shasta would enable the bureau to hold more water in the lake in reserve for drought years, he said.

The project would also allow greater cold water storage, which would benefit the Chinook salmon that rely on the water for spawning in the Sacramento River, the report says.

Raising the dam’s height would increase the reservoir’s capacity by about 14 percent. Bureau studies say raising the dam would make up to 133,400 acre-feet more water available to Central Valley Project contractors and the State Water Project, which serves the Metropolitan Water District and other districts in Southern California. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre one foot deep.         

The bureau Shasta Enlargement report says the lake is in a “dry/critical” stage about 36 percent of the time. Raising the dam would provide an additional 120,000 acre-feet of water during “dry/critical” years.

More water also would mean more power could be generated at the dam: up to 138 gigawatt-hours, according to the bureau.

Water grab?

The McCloud River also is on the radar of the Westlands Water District and the Metropolitan Water District, two rich and powerful players in state politics that support raising Shasta Dam. The two agencies have the means and the clout to change the state law protecting the McCloud, said Ron Stork, a senior policy director for the Sacramento-based Friends of the River, a nonprofit agency that works to protect rivers from development.

In December, directors of the Metropolitan district — a wholesale water supplier to about 19 million Southern California residents — voted to lobby to change state law so the state could help pay for raising the dam.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan district said the board approved the measure because in general it supports creating more water storage statewide.

Westlands officials also want the dam raised. In 2007 the district paid about $33 million to buy about 3,000 acres bordering the river, including the Bollibokka Fly Fishing Club. Its property extends south to just downstream of the McCloud River bridge.

Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham said in 2007 the district, which supplies water to some 600 farms in the San Joaquin Valley, bought the land to protect its interests along the river and around Lake Shasta.

“We did not want to see the use of this land to be changed to impede the potential of raising the dam,” he told the Record Searchlight in 2007.

Experts on water rights and state water politics said they were unsure how owning property along the McCloud River would benefit an agricultural water district in the San Joaquin Valley.

Birmingham and other officials with the district did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

River advocates claim both districts are interested in changing state law so they can get more water from Northern California.

Dave Steindorf, California stewardship director for American Whitewater, said it doesn’t make sense to raise the dam, because only about once every four years does the lake fill with the dam at its current height.      

And river advocates worry the wild and scenic protections also will be removed by the state Legislature. They point to the Merced River as an example of what could happen to the McCloud.

Last year the House passed a bill that would have stripped the wild and scenic status from a portion of the Merced to expand Lake McClure. The bill died, though, when the Senate failed to take up the measure.

“Even if the rules don’t allow it, there’s a way for them to get the water,” Stork said of efforts to change the law.

Who pays?

Last year’s draft report said the proposal to raise the dam 18 ½ feet would be the most feasible.

The federal government would pay $655 million of the $1.07 billion cost. Agricultural and municipal contractors would pay $331 million through their annual fees. An additional $84 million would be raised through selling hydroelectricity.

The agency says the annual cost of the dam project would be $54 million, but the benefit of generating more power, selling more water and ensuring more salmon in the Sacramento River would generate an estimated $92.2 million a year.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials are still working on environmental reports about the dam. If Congress approved funds for the project, the bureau says it could begin construction on an addition to the dam within five years.

History of preservation

While bureau officials look to the future, McCloud River advocates say wild and scenic status is rooted in decades-old politics.

In the 1980s, when legislators were working on a wild and scenic bill for the McCloud, proponents ran into resistance from landowners along the river, said Jeff Shellito, who at the time was a consultant to the state Assembly Natural Resources Committee.

Two well-known and politically connected families — the Schillings, who founded the Schilling spice company, and the Hearsts, heirs to a media empire — objected to giving the McCloud full wild and scenic status, he said.

The families feared the label would attract more rafters and anglers to the river, Shellito said.

“They didn’t want it to be in quotes ‘a wild and scenic river,’” Shellito said.

So in 1989 the Legislature worked out a compromise to give the McCloud the same protections as the state’s other wild and scenic rivers, but its status was supposed to be less known to the public, he said.         

Legislators also added a clause to the law forbidding any state agency from participating in planning and construction to raise Shasta Dam, with an exception allowing the state Department of Water Resources to work on technical and feasibility studies to raise the dam.

A bill currently in the state Legislature to put a statewide water bond on the November 2014 ballot refers to the Shasta Dam clause and prohibits using any of the bond money on efforts to raise the dam.

U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, helped draft the original water bond bill in 2009 when he was a state assemblyman. He said the prohibition against using money for work on Shasta Dam has been included in previous water bonds approved by voters.

That clause was included to protect the McCloud River from being further inundated, he said.

“It’s about protecting that wild and scenic status,” Huffman said.

Raising the elevation of the lake also would mean relocating numerous roads, bridges and businesses.

While some structures can be relocated, members of the Winemem Wintu tribe say many of their sacred sites along the river would be inaccessible and ruined by flooding.

The wild and scenic protections extend to a quarter-mile downstream of the McCloud River bridge, just about the same area where the Winnemem have fought for several years to close off to boaters during a coming-of-age ceremony for teenage girls in the tribe.

The puberty rock, central to the ceremony, as well as a nearby campground used by the Winnemem during the event, would be below the new high water mark set by a higher dam.

Knight said the current Shasta Dam and the dam creating Lake McCloud have done enough damage to the river.

“I think our approach is, look at what the McCloud has already given up,” Knight said.

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