Raising Shasta Dam Is an Even Worse Idea Than We Knew

The Trump Administration’s efforts to enlarge Shasta Dam was always a bad idea. In addition to being illegal under California law, it’s been clear for years that raising the height of the dam would destroy Native American sacred sites, harm fish and wildlife, and provide few water supply benefits. Those aren’t just NRDC’s concerns—these concerns have been expressed by numerous state and federal agencies over more than a decade of comments about this project, such as in this 2015 final Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act Report

But documents disclosed by the Bureau of Reclamation in response to Freedom of Information Act requests by Earthjustice, and modeling disclosed to NRDC, show that the project is an even worse idea than we previously understood. 

Significant Unresolved Seismic Risks in Enlarging Shasta Dam

First, Reclamation has identified a significant seismic risk problem at Shasta Dam that may preclude the enlargement of Shasta Dam in a safe manner. These risks have not been publicly disclosed and are not mentioned at all in the Draft Supplemental EIS.  We only learned about them thanks to public records disclosed to Earthjustice under FOIA. 

Ever since the failure of the Oroville Dam spillway in 2017, there has been growing concern about the safety of dams in California and across the nation. These documents from Reclamation, several of which are heavily redacted, show significant concerns with cavitation damage and potential failure of the spillway if Shasta Dam is enlarged, identify significantly increased seismic risks that were not previously analyzed, and explain that enlarging the dam is likely to increase the potential loss of life as a result of dam failure. As Reclamation stated in a draft report from February 2019, “Life loss under existing conditions is less than under raised conditions.

Not only did Reclamation not disclose these risks in the Draft Supplemental EIS—the document that is supposed to disclose environmental risks and impacts to the public—but according to this August 2019 report, it appears that Reclamation stopped work on evaluating the safety of the dam in 2019 and never finished the dam safety analysis, while at the same time continuing to push forward on enlarging the dam:

(Note that the date on the comment box on page 9 of the August 2019 report by the Bureau of Reclamation appears to be an artifact of the process of disclosing the documents to Earthjustice.)

It's the classic Trump Administration solution to a problem: if you don’t look for the problem, it will magically disappear. Unfortunately, the real world doesn't work that way.

Enlarging Shasta Dam Reduces Water Supply for State Water Project Contractors

In addition to the undisclosed, unresolved seismic risks associated with enlarging Shasta Dam, modeling disclosed by Reclamation to NRDC (see last page of this link) indicates that enlarging Shasta Dam would reduce the water supply for State Water Project contractors by an average of 14,000 acre feet per year. Yet even as it concludes the dam enlargement would harm water supply for the State Water Project, Reclamation’s existing feasibility study assumes that State Water Project contractors would pay approximately 8% of the cost of enlarging Shasta Dam.  It’s plainly unlawful for State Water Project contractors to contribute funding to enlarge Shasta Dam, yet Reclamation’s modeling assumes that they would illegally pay for a project that reduces their water supply. As with the undisclosed seismic risks, the DSEIS does not actually disclose the fact that Reclamation's modeling shows that enlarging Shasta Dam would reduce water supply for the State Water Project contractors—the Trump Administration apparently wants to hide that, too.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is supposed to provide the public and decision-makers with accurate information about the potential environmental impacts of major federal actions, so that all of us can make informed decisions. But instead of analyzing the potential environmental impacts of the project in light of major changes since the Final EIS in 2015—fundamental, basic things like considering the effects of climate change, of state court rulings preventing the Westlands Water District from funding this project, of significant changes in operations of Shasta Dam, of seismic risks—the Trump Administration is simply trying to sweep these problems under the rug. That includes blatantly lying about the project’s inconsistency with State law, which the State of California has repeatedly asserted, including in a successful lawsuit against the Westlands Water District, and which Reclamation previously admitted in 2015 (admitting in the Final EIS that raising the dam "would conflict with the State [Public Resources Code], and admitting in the Final Feasibility Report that "it is our understanding there has been a determination that the PRC protecting the McCloud River prohibits State participation in the planning or construction of enlarging Shasta Dam other than participating in technical and economic feasibility studies."). Sadly, Reclamation’s approach here is consistent with the Trump Administration’s antipathy towards the public, government transparency, disadvantaged communities, and the environment. 

Our coalition’s detailed comments on the flaws in the Draft Supplemental EIS are available here, along with this letter emphasizing that Reclamation needs to update the 2015 Feasibility Study to account for changed circumstances if they still want to try to move this unlawful project forward.

We urge Reclamation to finally abandon this deeply flawed and potentially dangerous project, but if David Bernhardt and his minions refuse to follow the law, NRDC and our partners will continue to fight this project.

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Director, California River Restoration, Water Division, Nature Program

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