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The Reservoir Stops Here

On the edge of the Yolly Bolly Wilderness, about 15 miles north of the dusty cattle and marijuana town of Covelo, 81-year-old Richard Wilson sits across from me in a ranch house his father constructed here in the 1940s. For much of his adult life, Wilson has defended the meaning and importance of the Round Valley area and the values he and other local people attach to it. So, while the ostensible purpose of my visit is to discuss Wilson's utterly unique personal role in shaping the State of California's water engineering history, it is no surprise that he also wants to hold forth on the drought's local impact.


“When we get good, wet winters the snow packs down on the mountaintops at about four thousand feet, then holds there into the summer,” says Wilson in his spare and placid style. “As the snow melts, it keeps the grass growing, and that's how you know where to find your cattle. In the last four years, there's just been no snow.”

Wilson's ranch, known as Buck Mountain, spans a roughly 20,000 acre portion of the second largest fork of California's third largest watershed: the Middle Fork of the Eel River. While few places in California are more remote from urban life, both Wilson and his watershed are central to understanding why California Governor Jerry Brown and other powerful elements of the state and federal government are currently avidly pursuing multi-billion dollar dam projects and 40-mile-long water conveyance tunnels that began as small print in economic and engineering charts in the early-1950s.

In 1960, California voters approved a referendum on the California Water Project, the largest bond issue in the state's history in constant dollars. By decade's end, the project had blocked the Feather River with what was then world's tallest dam. It had paid for giant pumping stations in the San Francisco Bay Delta move water into canals that parallel I-5 through the San Joaquin-Tulare portions of the Central Valley, as well as a 444-mile bloodline known as the California Aqueduct.

But the State Water Project has never fully been built, and a major reason why is sitting across from me here in the disorderly pine- and fir-studded mountains above Covelo. In 1967, the US Army Corps of Engineers unveiled a proposal to construct the largest dam and reservoir project in California's history: the so-called “Dos Rios Dam” on the Middle Fork of the Eel. In addition to being 730-feet-high, the dam would have flooded a 40,000-acre area for its reservoir, equal in size to the Shasta and Oroville reservoirs combined.

These liquid resources would have then passed through a tunnel in the Mendocino National Forest and into a smaller artificially engineered vessel on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, thence to the California Aqueduct and the farms and orchards of the west San Joaquin Valley. Among those coveting the water then, and still attempting to channel it their way now, were some of the state water lobby's most influential players: the Westlands Water District, Kern County Water Agency, San Luis Delta-Mendota Water Authority, and the Metropolitan Water District. For them, the Dos Rios Dam was the key project that would unlock a host of others.

Having completed a series of mega-water project throughout the mid-20th century, state and federal water developers had long trained their sights on California's northern coast, where about one-third of the state's surface water flows unimpeded to the ocean amidst magnificent mountain ranges and redwood groves (though these were often plundered by timber barons). Besides the Eel, Congress had authorized feasibility studies for dams and reservoirs on the Klamath, the Lower Trinity, the Mad, and the Van Duzen.

The Dos Rios reservoir would have flooded Mendocino County's Round Valley, a 24-square-mile alluvial basin home that is home to California's largest Native American reservation, and which at the time had a population of about 1,500. Wilson and his late wife, Susan, who then lived in the valley with their four children, mounted an opposition campaign. Though both Susan and Richard came from wealthy and well-connected Republican families, they were up against interests whose power was roughly equivalent to that of the coal industry in Kentucky — or so it seemed.

Wilson's mantelpiece displays memorabilia from his unique civic life, including a picture of him shaking hands with former California governor Pete Wilson, under whom he served as director of CalFire (formerly California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CDF) in the 1990s. An autographed picture of former US president Richard Nixon occupies a slot nearby. But the largest item is located on the mantle's far left, a California Department of Water Resources map depicting the state's northern coastal rivers almost entirely submerged by reservoirs and constipated by dams. Its big, bold header practically screams its message in red lettering: “We Must Stop This!”

By 1969, the Dos Rios Dam's opponents had rallied enough support in Sacramento that then-governor Ronald Reagan declined to support the dam. The environmental movement had spawned mainstream acceptance of the idea that rivers are vital natural ecosystems that should be protected, and that dams erected to divert water for agriculture, cities, and suburbs had pushed numerous fish species to the brink of extinction.

“The thing about Dos Rios was it was really a project that was out of step with the times because I think we were moving on to other ways of looking at water,” Wilson says.

The underdog victory against the dam marked a stunning defeat for the California water industry. And it had a cascade of consequences. In 1972, the State Legislature passed the California Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, which prohibited construction of new dams on the Smith, Klamath, Scott, Salmon, Trinity, Eel, Van Duzen, and American rivers.

But California's epic four-year drought is providing an ideal political climate for backers of new dam construction. Against a backdrop of plummeting reservoir levels, the state and federal governments are on the cusp of making their largest combined investment in reservoir construction since the passage of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

Inside the $7.5-billion water bond that California voters enthusiastically approved last November is a provision requiring the expenditure of $2.7 billion — more than a third of the bond — on water storage, which in this case mostly means dams. The water-storage bond provision, known as Chapter 8, was included largely at the insistence of the Legislature’s Republican minority, whose support was needed to reach the two-thirds threshold to qualify the bond for the ballot.

Of these potential projects, the most costly would be Sites Reservoir. With an estimated price tag of roughly $3.9 billion, two large dams, each around 310 feet high, would be constructed on the Sacramento River. The water would be pumped through the Tehama-Colusa and Glen-Colusa canals, as well as a third canal built specifically for the project that would originate north of Colusa, to an off-stream storage reservoir that would flood the Antelope Valley, located just east of Mendocino National Forest, about 10 miles west of the small town of Maxwell on Interstate 5.

A competing proposal is to construct Temperance Flat Dam on the Upper San Joaquin River. At 665 feet, Temperance Flat Dam would be the second highest dam in California, and the fifth tallest in the United States (it would be about 63 feet higher than Shasta Dam). Representative Jim Costa (D-Fresno) introduced a bill to authorize construction of the dam — which is projected to cost $3.36 million — last February.

And then there's the proposal to expand Shasta Reservoir by raising Shasta Dam by anywhere from 6 to 18.5 feet, at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion. The reservoir expansion would flood thousands of additional acres of the Trinity-Shasta National Forest and an estimated 49 sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu people, in the process adding 300,000 acre feet of storage to what is already California's largest reservoir. Finally, the Los Vaqueros dam in Contra Costa County is a candidate for expansion, with the possibility of adding 115,000 acre feet of storage for an estimated $840 million.

As a former long-time chairman of the Senate subcommittee that funds the Bureau of Reclamation, Senator Feinstein has been a key player in advancing the dam proposals. “Building or expanding these four reservoirs would result in hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of additional water storage, benefit urban and rural communities and increase the pool of water available for releases that benefit fish species,” she wrote in a 2013 San Francisco Chronicle op-ed.

While the dreams of irrigators, real estate speculators, and government agency leaders who sought mega water projects to fuel a seemingly endless cycle of development and expansion faded, these dam partisans have never fully abandoned their aspirations. They have even sometimes managed to gain approval for new infrastructure in the year since.

“The fundamental political problem is that there's a lot more land that can potentially be irrigated in this state than there are water resources to irrigate it,” says Ronald Stork, policy director of the advocacy group Friends of the Rivers. “So, it's inevitable that irrigators and other water buffaloes will push for new sources of subsidized water, and there have been times when have enough political clout and financial resources to mount small majorities in the Legislature.”

In July this year, meanwhile, California Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a $1.3 billion emergency drought relief bill to “support communities affected by drought.” The bill would authorize $600 million in spending on “Calfed storage projects,” in reference to four dam expansion and construction projects the state and federal government have studied since 2004: Shasta, Los Vaqueros, Sites, and Temperance Flat. Three of these four projects are in the Central Valley.

These parallel efforts to funnel new spending into dams are both at a turning point. Last week, Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a long-awaited legislative hearing on both Feinstein's bill and a drought bill in the house, as well as several other bills dealing with Western water issues. And the California State Water Commission, the nine-member committee appointed by the governor that will rule on allocation of the Proposition 1 bond money, held the second of two meetings to craft guidelines for handing out the water storage money on Wednesday, October 7th. It is expected to announce the guidelines next month and to allocate the funds in mid-2016.

Some legislators have seized on these projects and attempted to stamp them as the start of a new era. In the mid-1990s, Congressman John Doolittle said that construction of the Auburn Dam on the American River, which was defeated largely on environmental grounds, would “inaugurate a great new era of dam building” and frequently repeated the phrase. A new stock phrase, courtesy of Rep. Tom McClintock, is that the new reservoir projects subject to Proposition 1 and Congressional funding will help “to build a new era of abundance.”

But opponents of the projects point out that California is already home to almost 1,600 inventoried dams, plus thousands more mostly small, privately owned uncounted ones. Altogether, more than 60% of the state’s water fills up behind concrete and earthen walls. And, while California led the way with the first large dams and canals, the American West as a whole has also been transformed since the last century into a region of dams and canals.

Perhaps no watershed region of the West has been altered as dramatically by dams, however, as the California Central Valley, which drains the state's two largest rivers: the Sacramento and San Joaquin. For visual reference, one million acre-feet is a column of water covering the area of a football field rising 200 mile high. Existing reservoirs on these two rivers and their tributaries already yield roughly 11 million acre-feet of water annually, which the state and federal governments deliver by means of canals, aqueducts and pump plants to water districts throughout the state.

“These rivers are already dammed and developed,” says Ronald Stork, policy director of Friends of the River in Sacramento. “So, any new dams on them wouldn't result in much yield.”

Indeed, Sites Reservoir — the most likely dam to be constructed — would not provide a new source of water. Rather, it would provide extra storage capacity in high rain years when the Shasta Dam, which blocks the Sacramento River, and the Trinity Dam, which reroutes water from the Klamath Basin into the Sacramento Valley, have a surplus. Sites Reservoir would be a relatively shallow storage facility in an area that receives 10-15 inches of rain in a typical year and is subject to 100 degree temperatures for five months out of the year. Not only would the water evaporate at a disproportionate rate, but releases from the reservoir may have an overall warming impact on the Sacramento, where endangered fish such as Chinook salmon are already beset with warm temperatures that limit the ability of juveniles to survive.

From the perspective of many dam advocates, the construction of these facilities is largely a matter of completing unfinished business. “In the old planner's minds, the SWP is only half-built,” Friends of the River's Stork says. “The question is, Where's the missing yield? And one answer would probably be Richard Wilson's answer, which is that “the Department of Water Resources sought to turn the Eel River from a wild river into a series of reservoirs but failed.”

For anyone with a long-term view of California's perennial water conflicts, it is patently obvious that the holy grail of the dam builders is to finish what they started in the 1960s. At this point, only the firebrands are on record about it.

In July 2013, the agribusiness-dominated Tulare County Board of Supervisors made known their ongoing desire to tap the northern coastal rivers. “The continued over-drafted groundwater basins of the Central Valley are also a very serious threat to the economic future of California agriculture, and the Central Valley is in dire need of the development and importation of more surface water to eliminate mining groundwater,” the Board wrote in a statement. “The legislature should revisit Wild and Scenic Rivers status of the North Coast waters, where nearly one-third of California’s water supply flows to the ocean, when there is such a demonstrated need to put available resources to their highest and best use.”

One right-wing ideologue who bemoans the failure to tap California's northern coastal waterways is Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution — an influential right-wing think tank. Writing in the urban-policy magazine City Journal earlier this year, he wrote, “Had the gigantic Klamath River diversion project not been canceled in the 1970s, the resulting Aw Paw reservoir would have been the state’s largest man-made reservoir. At two-thirds the size of Lake Mead, it might have stored 15 million acre-feet of water, enough to supply San Francisco for 30 years.”

Three months after California voters approved the State Water Project, in 1961, Department of Water Resources planners wrote a blueprint for the state's water future called State Water Bulletin 76. The bulletin envisioned capturing the middle fork Eel River's water and shunting it through more than 30 miles of ditches and tunnels to the proposed Paskenta-Newville Reservoir in Glenn County. Construction of the latter reservoir was a crucial engineering component of the plan to divert the Eel into the Sacramento, then onto the California Aqueduct.

The current incarnation of the Paskenta-Newville Project is Sites Reservoir: the reservoir contained in DiFi’s drought bill that was heard by Congress last week, and also the leading candidate to receive funding from Proposition 1.

(Part 2 of this story will appear next week or the week after.)


  1. Jonah Raskin October 14, 2015

    What I would like to know is this – is there any organization or group or individual in the state of California who understands the politics, the economic and the culture of water and who has ideas, a vision, a plan that would make it possible to us to grow enough food to feed ourselves, for fish to thrive, and for communities of humans and non-humans be able to be resilient? If so let me know please

  2. Eric Sunswheat October 14, 2015

    Noticed surprising yield of acorns without insect damage this year on Mendocino Lake county line. Inland oaks are resilient so far.

  3. erik October 16, 2015

    I live in Tulare county. The rivers are “damned”. The lower rivers and creeks are dry and the old oaks are dying.
    There is water, its just sold to the well connected. The “conservation” groups here are silent. It must be because their boards and ceo’s are often ranchers and farmers.
    A few businessmen make alot of money, but the majority, here, are poor. They cut down ninetysomething percent of the forest, & the springs dried up.
    Nobody in “power” wants to admit they don’t know what to do.
    We don’t want or need more dams, but they refuse to listen. Get ready to rock-n-roll.

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