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Feature Story
Six Hundred Feet and Rising
Page 2

In the twentieth-century era of dam building in the American West, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was the biggest builder of all; indeed, it transformed the region by supplying water to its many arid precincts. In recent decades, however, the environmental cost of those dams has become clear, and dam construction has dwindled, to the point that more dams are now being taken down than erected.

Shasta Dam was built to accommodate expansion, but it wasn't until August 2000, when 25 state and federal agencies negotiated a 30-year California water plan, that the idea of a 6.5-foot to 18.5-foot raise gained momentum. Shasta was one of five surface-water storage projects that the plan deemed worthy of investigation. The Bureau of Reclamation, which built and manages Shasta, then received a $15 million congressional appropriation for a feasibility study of the raise. The study is scheduled for completion in late 2008.

The bureau has offered two justifications for enlarging the dam: to increase the state's water supply and to help the Sacramento River's salmon. Yet no environmental group has endorsed either of these rationales. The notion that California needs more surface-water storage is itself controversial. Many environmentalists say that improvements in water conservation and wastewater reclamation would enable the state to meet its needs for several decades, and that even if increased water supply were necessary, desalination plants and storage in previously emptied aquifers would probably prove cheaper and far less environmentally damaging than building or enlarging dams.

The chief beneficiaries of the Shasta raise would be farmers, who consume 80 percent of California's water supply. The bureau has said nothing to draw attention to this, though it's telling that the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents the state's agricultural and municipal water districts, calls the proposal "promising," and the general manager of the state's biggest agricultural district, Westlands, says it deserves "serious consideration." If the benefits to farmers were fully acknowledged, however, they might be called upon to pay their share of the half a billion dollars or more that the raise may cost. Instead, despite having recently changed Sacramento River management policies twice in ways that were detrimental to salmon, the bureau portrays the raise with a straight face as an attempt at salmon restoration. If Congress accepts the claim, the bill will be paid by all taxpayers, not just farmers.

The bureau is conducting its feasibility study at the same time that it is completing negotiations on new 25-year contracts (including options for another 25 years) with 250 water districts in California's Central Valley. Collectively, the new contracts call for the delivery of more water to the districts than the bureau's Central Valley Project usually can provide, and bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken has said that part of the difference will be made up with new water-storage facilities such as an enlarged Shasta reservoir. Barry Nelson, codirector of the Western Water Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), fears that once the contracts are signed, the bureau will tell Congress that it must expand Shasta or be out of compliance with the new agreements. "What the bureau has basically admitted is that they are signing contracts to deliver water from a raised Shasta Dam before Congress has even authorized construction of the raise," Nelson says. "And the last little piece in the puzzle is that these contractors [the water districts] have developed a nasty habit of suing the federal government when they don't get all of their water."

The Vanishing Bee
Wrecking the Rockies
In Verse

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Map: Mike Reagan

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