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The Reservoir Stops Here (Part 2)

California’s enormous and elaborate water infrastructure — dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, gates, tunnels, and other machinations plumbed together across more than six hundred miles — is divided into numerous management regimes. The largest of these is the Central Valley Project (CVP), which is administered by the US Bureau of Reclamation and delivers about 7 million acre-feet of water in average year, using Shasta Dam as its lynchpin.

By comparison, Lake Mendocino has a water supply pool of 70,000 acre feet, or one percent that amount the CVP delivers.

The November 1960 water bond that authorized the State Water Project (SWP) passed by the narrowest of margins: less than one percentage point. Key to the measure’s victory was the influential Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, a consortium of 14 cities and 12 municipal water districts that provides water to 18 million people in Southern California. The district only supported the bond measure after the California Department of Water Resources agreed to give it nearly half of the project’s estimated annual yield of 4.23 million acre-feet of water.

Three other entities also signed contracts to receive a collective 1.9 million acre feet of SWP water: the Westlands Water District, San Luis Delta-Mendota Water Authority, and the Kern County Water Agency, all of which represent large agricultural interests in the dry San Joaquin Valley.

Yet the State Water Project today yields only half the water promised to these entities, or about 2.2 million acre feet.

“In the old planners’ minds, the SWP is only half-built,” said Ronald Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River. “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 mostly wild river into a series of reservoirs but failed.”

One month after the State Water Project’s narrow approval in 1960, the California Department of Water Resources released a blueprint for future water development entitled “Delta Water Facilities,” which describes the operation of the San Luis Reservoir, Oroville Reservoir, and the pumps in the southern section of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that move water from north to south. The bulletin encourages construction of two million acre-feet of reservoir capacity on the Eel River by 1981. The bulletin also anticipated the completion of new dams on the Mad, Van Duzen, and Klamath rivers by 2012.

“I can't emphasize enough that it’s all laid out in Bulletin 76,” said Michael Jackson, 69, a prominent water rights attorney.

The central feature of California’s existing water system is the delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. The delta is also a pivotal transportation bottleneck that hinders water development: Pumping too much freshwater from it increases the salinity of the remaining water thereby causing devastating harm to the aquatic life in the estuary and diminishing the quality of water shipped to millions of Californians.

Since the 1970s, a defining question for California water planners has been whether the delta would be unblocked to permit more water to flow from north to south, or whether there would be a paradigm shift in water policy, as suggested by the water industry’s defeat at Dos Rios. The idea of building peripheral canals around the degraded delta became the solution for delivering new water to the irrigated farms of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and to the Metropolitan Water District.

In the early-80s, Jerry Brown, during his first stint as governor, and a majority of the legislature sought to deliver new water to these interests by proposing a peripheral canal. Despite being dressed up with fish ladders and screens and assurances that North Coast rivers were not the target of such a facility, the Peripheral Canal went down to defeat in a 1982 statewide referendum. It was the second crushing rebuke of California’s water industry, with the first being at Dos Rios.

But Big Ag in California still thirsts for more water. Los Angeles, for instance, uses about 600,000 acre-feet of water annually, while Kern County, at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, consumes more than four times as much — about 2.7 million acre-feet in a typical year.

In recent years, the state’s water industry, with Brown’s ardent backing, has resurrected the old peripheral canal concept as the Delta Twin Tunnels, with the same essential features. These 40-foot-diameter water pipelines would tap into the Sacramento River upstream of the delta. And, as Stork noted, “With the tunnels project back on the table, some of the firebrands are turning up heat on undoing protections for North Coast rivers.”

As noted in Part 1 of this story, 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 conservative ideologue who bemoans the failure to tap California’s northern coastal waterways is Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute — an influential right-wing think tank. Writing in the urban-policy magazine City Journal earlier this year, Hanson stated, “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.”

Stork sees the recent resurrection of these ideas as part of a broader strategy by certain south-of-Delta water interests. “From their perspective, you have to find a way to put water into the delta pumps. To do that, you have to build the tunnels. Then, you can put a little more in by raising Shasta and a bit more by constructing Sites or Temperance Flat. But the really juicy parts come from attacking North Coast rivers.”

Sites Reservoir is perhaps the most likely of California’s four prospective new dam projects to receive state and federal funding. As the former California Department of Fish and Wildlife water projects branch chief Bill Kier noted, Sites it is “a reincarnation” of a facility described in Department of Water Resources Bulletin 76, known as the Paskenta-Newville reservoir in Glenn County. That reservoir’s original function was to receive water diverted from the Dos Rios Reservoir, serving as a forebay to regulate the rate at which diverted Eel River water would flow into the Sacramento.

“When the North Coast rivers — the Eel and others — were given protection under the State and federal Wild and Scenic River systems in the 1970s, it was game over for Paskenta-Newville,” Kier said. “Well, Sites Reservoir is just Paskenta-Newville migrated about seventeen miles south-southeast from Glenn into Colusa County.”

* * *

Stork has attended California Water Commission’s meetings as a member of the Commission's Stakeholder Advisory Committee, and says the competition for the Prop 1 funding appears to be “a shoot-out between the two new reservoirs” — Sites and Temperance Flat. Tensions concerning each dam are ratcheting up in their respective areas. Earlier this year, two Bureau of Reclamation attorneys visited the homes of residents in the town of Auberry and informed them that, should Temperance Flat Dam be constructed, they would be taking the family’s property via eminent domain.

Temperance Flat is highly controversial because it would flood thousands of acres of public land in the San Joaquin River Gorge, where scenic canyons and historic sites are located. Meanwhile, an effort to promote Sites Reservoir is simultaneously ramping up in Butte and Colusa Counties. On September 22, state Senator Jim Nielsen, Assemblymember James Gallagher, and Congressmember Doug LaMalfa — all Republicans — convened an event they dubbed the North State Water Action Forum, where they encouraged attendees to flood the state water commission with comments supporting the project. But Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquaAlliance in Chico, said the reservoir “does not have slam-dunk support up here.” She said the forum’s 200 attendees were roughly divided among those in favor, against, and undecided.

The willingness of local water agencies to help fund the project is critical. Even the award of $2.7 billion in Prop 1 funds and several hundred million in support from the Congress would be insufficient on their own to construct either of the two reservoirs. In that regard, “the outfit to watch that will have to make the earliest decision will be the Santa Clara Water District,” said Jackson, the water rights attorney. The district has a contract for about 100,000 acre feet of water a year from the State Water Project.

The district’s executive director, Beau Goldie, supports Gov. Brown's Delta Twin Tunnels project. But many members of the board of directors do not, and would rather focus on expanding on the district’s success in promoting water conservation and recycling. And, in what may be a blow to the prospect of regional water agency support for new dam building, the district’s board of directors has initiated a process of removing Goldie from his position, according to an October 8 report in the San Jose Mercury News.

Environmentalists also note that neither Sites nor Temperance Flat pencils out in terms of the costs to construct them and the amount of water they would yield. Sites Reservoir, for example, would be filled via the Sacramento River, and proponents of the project believe it would solve a problem of too much water racing down the Sacramento River during high flows. So they propose a “Big Gulp, Tiny Sips” approach in which Sites would be filled by big gulps during wet years and tiny sips the rest of the time.

But the reservoir, according to Kier, also would be “an evaporation pan” because of its hot, dry location and shallow size. And, he said, it’s “unclear whether there is sufficient water remaining in the Sacramento River even to fill the proposed Sites Reservoir, or whether it would require raising Shasta Dam and increasing the capacity of Shasta Reservoir to make the Sites scheme work.”

According to the state and federal Pacific Salmon Plan for the Sacramento River, the river’s flow past the city of Sacramento to San Francisco Bay must be 30,000 cubic-feet per second in order to provide safe downstream passage for juvenile fall-run chinook salmon — the backbone of California’s salmon fisheries — thereby allowing enough juvenile salmon migration to reach the Pacific Ocean’s rearing grounds to ensure the subsequent levels of returning adults that the plan calls for (122,000–180,000). The State Water Board has yet to make these flow levels mandatory, however.

“If the water agencies choose to ignore those delta through-flow needs in the development of projects like Sites Reservoir or raising Shasta Dam, then California’s salmon fisheries are doomed, together with the communities, economies, and cultures that they support,” Kier said.

* * *

When Shasta Dam was constructed in the 1940s, it flooded roughly 90% of the Winnemem Wintu’s traditional territory and eliminated the chinook salmon runs that are the Winnemem’s source of life. In exchange for appropriating the Winnemem’s land, the federal government promised to compensate the tribe — but never did.

Now, raising the dam would flood many of the Winnemem’s remaining cultural strongholds. On August 12, 2014, Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk delivered that message to the United Nations’ 85th Session of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Sisk was one of five Indigenous leaders from North America selected to present to the committee, which was investigating the United States’ record of compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Sisk has noted that the US government’s refusal to recognize the Winnemem prevents the tribe from having enough political standing to take on the federal government in court. In a conversation with me last year, she referred to the twin tunnels plan and associated projects under the catch-all term “Brown Water Planning,” in reference to California’s governor.

“This water plan is one big toilet,” she said at the time. “Shasta Dam is the tank. The San Francisco Bay Estuary is the bowl. And the tunnels are the exit pipes, one of which goes right to Westlands Water District to provide for their selenium-laden, poisoned crops.”

In spite of the lack of official recognition, the Winnemem have mounted a campaign to oppose the dam’s construction and cultivated alliances throughout the world. In 2003, when Feinstein introduced legislation to fast-track feasibility studies related to expanding California’s water storage capacity, including the raising of Shasta Dam, the Winnemem responded by holding a traditional war dance, the first by their people since 1887. Asserting that the Shasta Dam is a Weapon of Mass Destruction that has caused great harm to the Winnemem culture, she chose September 11, 2004 as the date of the ceremony.

As the war dance was about to begin, the Winnemem people got word that then-US Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colorado, was preparing to introduce legislation to restore their federal tribal recognition — something they had long sought. The Winnemem were asked to cancel or postpone the war dance, to avoid attracting negative attention or arousing the wrath of politicians who favored raising the dam. But political compromise could not interfere with their spiritual beliefs, and the war dance went on.

During the dance, Feinstein and US Senator Barbara Boxer. D-California, presided over the passage of legislation that funded $395 million in studies on increasing California’s water storage infrastructure, including raising Shasta Dam. On the fourth day of the dance, word came that Campbell was going to remove the language recognizing the Winnemem from his proposed amendment. But the Winnemmem people completed their dance and it was reported in media around the world, including in The New York Times, resulting in their receiving word from indigenous Maori people that the McCloud River's chinook salmon continue to survive in an unlikely location: New Zealand, where hatchery-raised fish were transported in the early-20th century.

While the McCloud River, which drains into Shasta Lake, is not included in the California State Wild and Scenic River System, it is protected from further dam construction in the Wild and Scenic River section of the California Public Resources Code. Therefore, the plan to raise Shasta Dam is ineligible to receive state funding unless the state legislature removes the wild and scenic designation on the McCloud. If that were to happen, it would set a precedent: neither the state nor federal government has ever removed a wild and scenic designation on a river.

In recent years, though, two of the most powerful water districts in the state — Westlands Water District and Metropolitan Water District — have been pushing to remove this protection from the McCloud. And Westlands is a notoriously influential donor to state and federal politicians, including Feinstein.

But environmentalists note that raising Shasta Dam, like the Sites and Temperance Flat projects, would cost far more than it’s worth. At $1.3 billion, it would provide only about 53,000 acre feet of new water in an average year, accounting for variations in rainfall. The Bureau of Reclamation even points to this problem in the feasibility study it released for the dam project.

* * *

For the residents of Round Valley, the success of their campaign in the 1960s and ’70s powerfully affirmed the meaning and importance of the place where they lived and the values they attached to it. In an era marked by civil rights and liberation movements of Blacks, Latinos, and American Indians, Round Valley’s indigenous people proved to be a potent force.

The Round Valley Indian Reservation, one of four California reservations that the federal government had established in the mid-19th century, was not only home to Round Valley’s original inhabitants, the Yuki, but also indigenous people from throughout Northern California whose grandparents and great grandparents had been been force-marched onto the reservation by the US Army and vigilantes.

Ernie Merrifield, 74, is a Round Valley Indian and former tribal council member who was among several spokespeople to emerge in the campaign against Dos Rios. “Richard Wilson was the first to stand up against the dam,” recalled Merrifield, who has taught California Indian history at Humboldt State University and is a former English teacher at Ukiah High School. “In the end, we had elders going on television and saying, ‘We were force-marched here, and we’re not about to be forced to leave.”

Merrifield added a cautionary note. “My elders told me this fight will never really be over,” he said.


By the time I met Wilson, in late-September, the hills around Buck Mountain Ranch were a golden hue after weathering months of unending sunlight beating down out of cloudless skies. More than half the needles on many of the drought-stricken ponderosa pines and Douglas firs surrounding his ranch had died under the strain. As with so many landowners in California, he says it’s the driest he’s ever seen.

Nowadays, Wilson is mostly withdrawn from the day-to-day battles that characterize the world of California water politics. One of the former Cal Fire director’s main focuses is management of forests to reduce fuel loads. For several weeks this summer, Mendocino County and surrounding environs were blanketed with ash from wildfires that consumed roughly 150,000 acres in neighboring Lake County.

Wilson's effort to stop the Dos Rios Dam is described in vivid detail in Ted Simon's 1995 book The River Stops Here.  Seated beneath his mantlepiece, Wilson recalled the period after Ronald Reagan had decided against supporting the Dos Rios Dam when he worked for the passage of the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. “The way these developers do things is, if they get derailed, they come right back,” he said. “They will continually come back as long as they see there’s an opportunity. So, we tried to get it nailed down with as much protection as we could. It took us a couple of years running at the legislature to get [the Wild & Scenic Rivers] decision, but we finally did.”


One Comment

  1. erik October 23, 2015

    Thank you Will for your insightful reporting of the “California” water wars. I can say with little doubt, that the real people, of the southern san Joaquín valley benefit naught from the shenanigins that the politicians promilugate.
    Our voice is not heard.. Because we don’t vote. We’ve been disenfranchised, abused, and neglected.
    I don’t want to sound toó negative.
    Fact: Native people are still here.
    Fact: Children are smart and don’t fall for the BS.
    Fact: Temperence Damn would destroy priceless cultural heritage!!!

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