A report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, guardians of the Endangered Species Act, is raising blood pressures throughout another federal agency that’s been working for years on a controversial plan to raise Shasta Dam 18 ½ feet, increasing water storage by 14 percent.
As the $1.1 billion plan has progressed it’s been bolstered by claims that the taller dam of the future will mean regular releases of more cold water into the Sacramento River, which will improve habitat and help increase the numbers of endangered Chinook salmon on the Sacramento River.
That point has been important in the Bureau of Reclamation’s campaign to convince the public — especially in the North State — that raising the dam is more than just a water grab pushed by thirsty and politically powerful farmers in the Westlands Water District south of the Delta.
That’s a fish tale, say Fish and Wildlife biologists, whose draft report was completed two months ago and had been circulating quietly through the federal bureaucracy until environmentalists popped it into public view with a Freedom of Information Act request.
In fact, the report says, increased flows would destroy salmon habitat in one of the world’s most renowned fly fishing rivers. There would be no net benefits to the fish and the negative impacts cannot be mitigated.
This page has not taken a position on whether or not the state’s largest dam should be raised. Those southern farms, large and small, are certainly important to the state and national economy. Any local jobs generated by dam expansion construction would be welcome, but purely temporary.
There are plenty of negatives.
The Wintu lost almost 5,000 acres of their traditional territory, some of it considered sacred ground, when the dam was completed and the reservoir filled in 1945. They stand to lose more sacred sites along the McCloud River if the dam is raised.
Raising Shasta’s high water mark would obliterate magnificent scenery, treasured campgrounds, vacation destinations and fishing sites. Bridges, roads, trails and railroad tracks would have to be relocated.
And the Reclamation Bureau’s own environmental report says the rising waters would force it to buy out up to 209 parcels, many of them in Lakehead, much of which also would be inundated. Property values there already are in the tank after years of uncertainty about raising the dam.
The Sacramento River is at the heart of our community — our trails, our bridges, our vistas, revolve around the river. Its salmon are a major component. Anything that threatens those salmon threatens us, our lifestyle and, in many cases, our livelihoods.
Now the Fish and Wildlife biologists tell us that higher lake levels, new construction and relocating roads and campgrounds would do irreparable harm to rare plants and animals around the lake.
Tom Stokely, a water policy analyst for the California Water Impact Network — the environmental group that won release of the report — says it “cuts the legs out of the economic justification for the project.” Taxpayers would pay about $655 million for the project, primarily for “benefits” to the salmon, benefits biologists say are all but nonexistent. The remainder of the funding would come from Valley farm water interests.
He has a point.
Now that the report is public, Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife spokespersons alike are stressing the report is just a draft. Concerns are being “addressed” and the report could change.
Environmentalists worry that the pressure is on behind the scenes — powerful interests are at work to alter the findings.
But if any changes are made to the 349-page report, if the biologists suddenly decide to change their findings, those who wield the editors’ pens had better be prepared to justify them down to the tiniest detail.
Environmentalists — and all who cherish the Lake Shasta and her rivers — have what they need to mount a tough legal battle.