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Feature Story
Six Hundred Feet and Rising
Page 3

Before Shasta Dam was built, the salmon species that spawned in the McCloud, known as Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon, abounded -- anecdotal evidence found in fisheries chronicles suggests that its population may have been as high as 200,000. By the late 1960s, the number of spawning winter-run chinook had fallen to an annual average of 86,500, and in 1994, just after a five-year drought, it hit a record low of 189. Abundant rainfall, good ocean conditions, and habitat restoration efforts in the last several years have sparked a small chinook resurgence, pushing the spawning population back up to 8,500, but the species is still endangered, and an extended drought could cause its extinction.

In response to the 1987-1992 drought, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed nearly emptying the Shasta reservoir to maintain water deliveries. But the National Marine Fisheries Service, acting under provisions of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, instead directed the bureau to keep at least 1.9 million acre-feet of water in the reservoir (its total capacity is 4.6 million). It also ordered the bureau to maintain spring and summer temperatures along a 49-mile stretch of the Sacramento River downstream from the dam at no more than 56 degrees Fahrenheit, above which salmon eggs cannot survive. Only with a sufficient volume of water in the reservoir can the river stay that cold.

Through the Clinton administration and into the Bush administration, the bureau accepted these restrictions, but in 2004 it signaled a change. By then Jason Peltier, former manager of a California agribusiness lobbying group called the Central Valley Project Water Association, had become the Interior Department's deputy assistant secretary for water and science, whose responsibilities include overseeing the bureau's awarding of contracts to California water districts -- that is, to his old bosses. In preparation for the contract renewals, the bureau released a long-term master plan. The 1.9 million acre-foot reservoir minimum that the Fisheries Service had deemed necessary to produce cold water would now be treated not as a requirement but only as a far more equivocal "target." And the temperature limit would apply only to 42 miles of the river, not 49.

Both changes would clearly harm the salmon, but the bureau cited an opinion from the Fisheries Service stating that the new plan would not jeopardize the threatened fish. Not only did California's three top water officials dispute the opinion -- declaring that in dry years the changes in bureau procedures would cause the death of about 45 percent of winter-run chinook eggs -- but the U.S. Department of Commerce's inspector general found after an investigation that the Fisheries Service had "deviated" from proper methodology, "undermining the integrity of the process." As NRDC's Nelson explains, "It's abundantly clear that the Fisheries Service folded under political pressure to relax protections for winter-run salmon."

Photos of Marine Sisk-Franco, her cousin, and motherHaving taken two steps away from salmon protection, the bureau now portrays the Shasta Dam raise as a major step forward -- the logic being that a higher dam would increase the amount of cold water within the reservoir, eventually producing more cold water downstream. But rescinding the harmful changes it proposed in 2004 would do more for salmon, without the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars.

To Steve Evans of the Sacramento-based Friends of the River, the idea that Shasta Dam would be raised to benefit salmon -- at the expense of taxpayers rather than the farmers who would be the real beneficiaries -- is a classic bait-and-switch operation. To Caleen Sisk-Franco, it's a flat-out lie. "It's so disgusting that they're putting that out there," she says, "and that people are actually believing it."

The Vanishing Bee
Wrecking the Rockies
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Photos: Diane Cook & Len Jenshel

Map: Mike Reagan

OnEarth. Summer 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council