Raising Shasta Dam Would Harm Many to Benefit a Few

The Trump administration is working with Westlands Water District to undermine California’s environmental goals. We’re fighting back.

When the federal government erected Shasta Dam back in 1945, the 602-foot dam created the largest water reservoir in California, but at a steep price. The project flooded the surrounding watershed, decimating tribal lands. The dam also blocked the path Chinook salmon followed for centuries to swim from the Pacific Ocean up to the McCloud River to spawn. For decades now, there have been no salmon on the McCloud River.

To make matters worse, the federal government’s poor management of Shasta Dam and its reservoir since then has virtually wiped out winter-run Chinook salmon in California. The loss of this salmon population harms everyone from commercial fishermen to river enthusiasts to orca whales in Washington state.

Now, the Trump administration, along with the largest agricultural water district in the country — Westlands Water District — wants to raise Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet. Such a raise would not only flood critical parts of the protected McCloud River, it would harm tribal lands, a prized trout fishery, rare plants and wildlife, and the Chinook salmon who must spawn downstream of the dam.

Earthjustice is representing our fishing and conservation partners, standing in solidarity with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, and joining the California Attorney General’s Office in a lawsuit to enforce the rule of law and protect the free-flowing river.

While officials have discussed raising Shasta Dam for decades, lawmakers quashed the idea during the Obama administration. However, the Trump administration is bent on interfering with California’s environmental goals — whether it is wildfire management, how we regulate pollution in the air, or California’s water management. In March 2018, as part of a federal budget bill signed into law by President Trump, Congress appropriated $20 million to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for pre-construction planning for the dam raise.

The Bureau of Reclamation is now on a fast track to begin raising Shasta Dam by the end of 2019. The problem for the agency is that federal law is clear that Reclamation cannot begin construction until it finds a local partner to cover half of the $1.3 billion bill.

Westlands Water District wants to be that partner. Westlands represents the interests of big commercial agriculture in California, and it stands to gain more water from the project to deliver to its large corporate agriculture constituents in the southern part of California’s Central Valley, hundreds of miles from the dam. Westlands is using all its power to make this happen.

First, in late 2018, Westlands allocated over $1 million dollars for an environmental impact review of the dam raise, a key step towards signing a cost-share agreement with Reclamation. Second, Westlands has been negotiating a cost-sharing agreement with Reclamation. Third, Westlands paid almost $35 million ($5 million over asking price) for 3000 acres of land along the McCloud River in 2007 that was home to a well-known fishing camp. All this to remove, as Westlands general manager and counsel at the time said, any “additional impediments” to the dam raise project.

This renewed effort to raise the dam all happened after Trump took office, and after Trump installed Westlands’ former key lobbyist, David Bernhardt, as Secretary of the Interior Department — the very agency that oversees Reclamation. Unsurprisingly, Bernhardt is also under a serious cloud for numerous ethical violations since taking office. These allegations include unlawfully providing lobbying support to industry clients, including Westlands, and using his new position to advance a policy pushed by his former client, Westlands.

Just like the Trump administration and the ethically challenged cronies Trump has appointed, Westlands is not above the law — and state law prohibits Westlands from supporting the dam raise. In 1989, the California Legislature amended the California Wild & Scenic River Act to protect the McCloud River from a dam raise. The amendment prohibited any agency of the State of California from assisting or cooperating with the planning or construction of any dam that could adversely affect the McCloud River’s free-flowing condition or its wild trout fishery. Westlands, whether it likes it or not, is an agency of the State of California and so must follow this law.

For decades, California has upheld the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by refusing to support proposals to raise Shasta Dam. Both the California State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have informed Westlands that it cannot legally pursue this project. In fact, in March of 2018, then-Secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency — John Laird — wrote a letter to the U.S. Congress saying “the Shasta Dam enlargement project would violate California law due to the adverse impacts that project may have on the McCloud river and its fishery.”

That is why on May 13, 2019, a broad coalition of fishing and conservation groups, along with the California Attorney General’s Office, filed a lawsuit against Westlands Water District over its unlawful participation in supporting the Shasta dam raise. Represented by Earthjustice, Friends of the River, Golden Gate Salmon Association, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Natural Resources Defense Council are urging the court to find Westlands in violation of the California Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

Current efforts to raise Shasta Dam are not merely unlawful. Flooding remaining sacred tribal lands of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, harming a prized trout fishery on a pristine stretch of river, harming other vulnerable plants and wildlife, and harming already threatened downstream salmon, all for select corporate interests, is a terrible idea. Erecting a huge federal public works project, at huge taxpayer expense, when there are better, more modern, less expensive, and less harmful solutions, is simply bad government.

In a particularly egregious move, Reclamation tries to cloak itself in environmental goodness by claiming the dam raise would actually help salmon populations downstream. The problem is the science shows otherwise. “The dam raise would harm — not help — salmon downstream,” says John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

No one, including the Trump administration and the largest agricultural water district in the country, is above the law. California has spoken. It wants to protect the free flow of the McCloud River, the sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, the prized trout fishery, and downstream Chinook salmon. This showdown — with the Trump administration and corporate interests of Westlands on one side and Californians on the other — is worth the fight.

Stacey Geis worked at Earthjustice from 2014-2023.

The California Regional Office fights for the rights of all to a healthy environment regardless of where in the state they live; we fight to protect the magnificent natural spaces and wildlife found in California; and we fight to transition California to a zero-emissions future where cars, trucks, buildings, and power plants run on clean energy, not fossil fuels.

Raising Shasta Dam would flood critical parts of the protected McCloud River.
Raising Shasta Dam would flood critical parts of the protected McCloud River. (JUNAIDRAO / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)