#NoDamRaise: Water Supply Solutions Shouldn't Involve Shasta

Westlands Water District's efforts to raise Shasta Dam are not only illegal, there are far better solutions available to secure reliable water supplies in California.
McCloud River Above Shasta Reservoir
McCloud River above Shasta Reservoir
Credit: Courtesy of Thomas O'Keefe

Earlier this week, a coalition of fishing and conservation groups including NRDC filed a lawsuit in California against Westlands Water District for unlawfully aiding efforts by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to raise Shasta Dam and degrade the free-flowing and wild trout rich McCloud River. We are grateful that California's Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, also joined the fight to stop Westlands’ illegal attempt to enrich its water supply at the expense of our natural heritage.

The McCloud River flows from springs fed by glaciers on the flanks of Mount Shasta in northern California to Shasta Reservoir. Its wild reaches above the reservoir are home to one of the finest wild trout fisheries in the state. In 1989 amendments to California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the State legislature declared, “the McCloud River possesses extraordinary resources” and “maintaining the McCloud River in its free-flowing condition to protect its fishery is the highest and most beneficial use of the waters of the McCloud River.” The Act protects the river by prohibiting an agency of the state, including water districts like Westlands, from assisting or cooperating in the planning or construction of an enlargement to Shasta Dam if the enlargement “could have an adverse effect on the free-flowing condition of the McCloud River, or on its wild trout fishery.” 

Despite this prohibition, Westlands is now engaged in the environmental planning and review of the project that is a necessary precursor to raising the Dam. Reclamation cannot raise the Dam on its own—federal law requires that it have a local cost-share partner. Westlands is intent on becoming that local cost-share partner, and even purchased land for over $30 million dollars to pave the way for further flooding and inundation of the McCloud. If allowed to go forward, this destructive project would not only flood the McCloud, it would harm the river’s wild trout, destroy Native American sacred sites, and harm fish and wildlife downstream of the dam, including endangered Chinook salmon.

None of this harm is necessary. There are far better and cheaper alternatives to damaging our increasingly rare wild rivers and imperiled salmon and other native fish with outdated dams that wreak havoc on our environment. These include increasing agricultural water use efficiency and improving existing south-of-delta storage, including by recharging groundwater supplies. Together these solutions can enhance California’s developed water supply while simultaneously protecting the health and well-being of our environment. Implementing them, however, will require a holistic approach to solving the water supply equation.

Enlarging Shasta Dam Will Harm Our Rivers and Wild Fish

While increasing or improving water storage may play a role in securing California’s water future, enlarging Shasta Reservoir is not the way to do it. Reclamation’s own environmental review of the proposed project in 2014 concluded that increased inundation from raising the Dam “could affect the free-flowing conditions of the McCloud River,” and that the impacts even after mitigation were “significant and unavoidable.” Reclamation also concluded that impacts to the wild trout fishery would be “potentially significant,” even after mitigation.

Raising the Dam would not only ruin portions of the McCloud River, it would harm wild salmon downstream of the dam. Shasta Dam has had devastating effects on the once prolific salmon runs in the Sacramento River. Shasta Dam blocks access to spawning and rearing habitat in upstream tributaries, including in the McCloud River. In addition, it prevents the Sacramento River from moving the gravel, woody debris, and other materials essential to healthy and productive salmon habitat within the Sacramento River itself.

The Dam raise will only exacerbate these impacts to endangered salmon. When called upon to assess impacts of raising Shasta Dam to salmon downstream in the Sacramento River, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded “the proposed action, while further restricting high water flows, will result in additional losses of salmonid rearing and riparian habitat.” The California Department of Fish and Wildlife likewise concluded that raising the dam would detrimentally impact fish.

Not only will raising Shasta Dam harm our wild rivers and wild fish, it will do little to help secure a reliable water supply for California—and at huge cost. Current estimates put the cost of raising the dam at over $1.4 billion, and yet on average it will only generate an additional 70,000 acre-feet of water per year. Statewide, agriculture uses at least at least 30 million acre-feet of water per year: the additional water that raising Shasta Dam could supply is a drop in the bucket.

Instead of increasing the height of Shasta Dam, we should develop alternatives that reduce our unsustainable reliance on the Sacramento River to supply water to southern California and help to restore California’s valuable salmon fisheries.

Increase Efficiency in Agricultural Water Use

Increasing agricultural efficiency is an essential element of securing a reliable water supply for California. And doing so can mean leaving more water in our rivers to support wildlife and a healthy, climate-resilient ecosystem.

Agriculture uses about 80 percent of all developed water supply in California. Increasing agricultural water efficiency means implementing measures that reduce water used without diminishing the benefits of water use. Techniques to improve agricultural efficiency include transitioning from flood irrigation to precision drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation systems. Some farmers in California are already improving water use efficiency on their farms; bringing the rest of them along would do far more for water security than raising Shasta Dam.

It is estimated that increased efficiency in agricultural water use would reduce consumptive use in the sector by between 0.6 and 2 million acre-feet per year, and reduce the need to divert water from overtapped rivers and aquifers by a far greater amount. The reduction in consumptive use alone is between 8 and 28 times greater than the average annual yield potentially generated by raising Shasta Dam. Increasing agricultural water-use efficiency reduces demand on already over-allocated rivers, which in turn provides greater certainty that the water these rivers can reasonably supply will be available when we need it.

Improve South of Delta Storage and Recharge Groundwater

There are options for increasing storage in California that do not involve sacrificing our wild rivers and wild fish. Properly designed and operated improvements to off-channel storage in Los Vaqueros and San Luis Reservoir south of the Delta provide opportunities to divert and store flows during wet-weather, when water is relatively abundant. Water supply projects that will replenish and recharge groundwater supplies are likewise a better solution. Recharging groundwater supplies as a means of increasing water supply and reliability, especially in dry years, is vital. While there is no question that California needs to increase flows in the Bay-Delta watershed in most years to protect salmon and other native fish and wildlife, during really wet years there is the potential to capture some additional water for groundwater recharge, potentially through on farm recharge or using dedicated recharge basins. 

The solution to California’s water supply problems is not bigger dams on already imperiled rivers. Instead we need innovative solutions. It’s time to invest in increased efficiency and ecologically-sound storage that minimizes harm to our rivers and recharges our depleted aquifers.