The Bureau of Reclamation has been studying a possible raise of Shasta Dam and expansion of its reservoir for decades. Most recently, the agency released the Shasta Lake Water Resources Investigation (SLWRI)Draft Feasibility Report (DFR) and Preliminary Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for public comment by Monday, January 28, 2013.
The DFR/DEIS examines six possible dam raise scenarios or alternatives, ranging from “No Action” to raising the dam by 6.5 to 18.5 feet. The existing Shasta Reservoir is already the largest reservoir in the state. Raising the dam by 18.5 feet would expand the reservoir as much as 1.5 miles upstream into the McCloud, upper Sacramento, and Pit Rivers and flood nearly 4,400 acres of National Forest land (including three protected roadless areas) currently managed for public recreation and fish and wildlife habitat. The dam raise would also require the relocation of numerous roads, bridges, recreation sites, and other facilities around the existing reservoir.
Raising the dam and expanding the reservoir could cost $1.1 billion or more, with annual operational costs of $54 million. Because the Bureau hypothesizes that more than 61% of the benefits of this expensive project are public, the taxpayer will pick up the majority of the cost to build and operate the project, while most of the water will be exported south of the Delta to federal water contractors who will buy the water at significantly lower than market rates.
Significant & Unavoidable Impacts
The Bureau’s own DEIS admits to a long list of significant and unavoidable environmental impacts that cannot be mitigated. These include:
Native American Cultural Heritage – The DEIS documents that the dam raise and reservoir expansion will have “disproportionally high” impacts on local Native Americans, specifically the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. The Tribe lost most of their traditional homeland under the existing reservoir. Raising the dam will drown and cultural and sacred sites still used by the Winnemem to this day.
Wild & Scenic Rivers – Nearly 30 years ago, the Forest Service identified both the McCloud and upper Sacramento Rivers as potential Wild & Scenic Rivers due to their rare free flowing character and outstandingly remarkable wild trout, Native American cultural, scenic, and geological values. The agency chose not to recommend Wild & Scenic protection for these outstanding rivers because their nationally significant values did not appear to be threatened at that time. But now it is clear that the dam raise/reservoir expansion will destroy the free flowing character and many of the nationally significant values of the lower segments of these rivers. In addition, flooding even a foot of the McCloud River would also violate state law, which the Bureau acknowledges but it simply suggests that state law should be changed to accommodate their project.
Wildlife – The dam raise/reservoir expansion will cause permanent loss of habitat for numerous important and special status wildlife species, including Pacific fisher, northern spotted owl, northern goshawk, foothill yellow-legged frog, Shasta salamander, seven special status bat species, and four special status mollusks. The project will also result in the permanent loss of rare plant habitat and critical deer winter and fawning habitat.
Lower Sacramento River – The dam raise/reservoir expansion will modify flows in the lower Sacramento River, with potentially significant impacts on the river’s riparian ecosystem and protected wildlife species that depend on that ecosystem. The Bureau proposes a so-called Adaptive Management Plan to mitigate these impacts but provides little information on how the Plan will be implemented, how the needs of water contracts will be weighed against ecosystem flow needs, and what guarantees will be provided to ensure that this significant impact is truly mitigated to less than significant levels.
Delta – The effects of the dam raise/reservoir expansion will be felt all the way downstream to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Storing more water behind the expanded dam and reservoir will further reduce fresh water flows into the Delta during critical periods, with potentially significant increases in mortality for endangered Delta fish due to increased reverse flows in the south Delta.
Air Quality – The Bureau admits that the dam raise/reservoir expansion will increase the short-term emission of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) by 30% but fails to recognize that the existing reservoir already pumps 224 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere on a daily basis (equal to 14,500 automobiles driving 40 miles a day)! Expanding the reservoir may increase Shasta Dam’s daily contribution to greenhouse gases and global warming.
Hydropower – The dam raise/reservoir expansion could decrease long term monthly average hydropower generation by as much as 5%, a level that could affect California’s always tenuous power market.
Supposed “Benefits” Are Questionable
Perhaps the most questionable aspect of the Bureau’s proposed dam raise/reservoir expansion is the agency’s contention that it will increase cold water in the reservoir, which can later be released to benefit downstream salmon and steelhead. Construction of Shasta Dam in 1940 blocked miles of some of the best salmon and steelhead habitat in California. The state’s salmon and steelhead fishery has declined ever since. In the last two decades, federal officials have listed as threatened and endangered the Sacramento River’s winter and spring runs of Chinook salmon, and its steelhead trout population.
Theoretically, the dam raise/reservoir expansion could supply additional cold water for downstream salmon, but the existing dam/reservoir could also be operated to improve and restore fisheries. The endangered species listings of several Sacramento River fish species and numerous lawsuits have proven that the Bureau simply cannot be trusted to operate the raised dam/expanded reservoir to benefit fisheries. Most likely the project will continue to be operated primarily to benefit downstream water contractors. Nevertheless, the Bureau assumes the project will be operated to benefit fisheries and has therefore allocated 61% of the costs for this more than a billion dollar project to the public.
In addition, many of the “benefits” provided in the dam raise/reservoir expansion alternatives are achieved through activities not directly associated with actual construction of the project, including augmentation of downstream spawning gravels for salmon and steelhead, adaptive flow management to benefit the downstream riparian ecosystem of the lower Sacramento River, and habitat acquisition and restoration projects. The Bureau has failed to propose an alternative that improves fishery flows and habitat without raising the dam. Nor has the Bureau even acknowledged in the DFR/DEIS the most important recovery action identified by the National Marine Fisheries Service to restore the river’s beleaguered salmon and steelhead – providing fish passage around the dam so that salmon and steelhead can access their historical and still relatively healthy spawning grounds.
The Bureau’s estimate that the 18.5 foot dam raise could yield as much as 133,000 acre fee of water for drinking, irrigation, and alleged fish improvements, is wildly overblown. Even if you accept the Bureau’s estimate, the maximum amount of annual water yield from the project represents less than .3 percent of California’s annual water supply. Even more importantly, raising Shasta Dam won’t create new water. Expanding Shasta Reservoir simply means that the reservoir will have less water in it during California’s chronically recurring drought years. The Bureau acknowledges this indirectly by admitting that hydrology, climate change, water system operations, water supply reliability and water demand are all “significant uncertainties.”
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To review the DFR/DEIS, visit www.usbr.gov/mp/slwri/index.html.
For more information about this alert, feel to contact Steve Evans, Wild & Scenic River Consultant, Friends of the River, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, phone: (916) 442-3155 x221.