tribe fears losing land if dam is raised
September 23, 2008,
Samantha Young, Capital Press
SHASTA LAKE, Calif. (AP) - The federal government is considering
enlarging a dam to boost the state's water supply, which would
flood what little land remains above water where a Native American
tribe had fished and farmed for centuries.
Nine-tenths of the ancestral land of the Winnemen Wintu was
submerged in 1945, when the federal government built a 602-foot
dam downstream of their ceremonial and prayer grounds.
Now the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is considering enlarging Shasta
Dam, flooding the remaining 22 miles of rocky, steep canyon
shoreline, including two sacred rocks involved in coming-of-age
"These sacred places help keep the tribe healthy. They help keep
it balanced and they help us to heal," said tribal chief Caleen
Sisk-Franco. "There is no replacement. There's not an option to
The desire by the few remaining tribal members to preserve the
remnants of their homeland is running headlong into the desires of
Central Valley farmers, the main beneficiaries of the federal
proposal to enlarge Lake Shasta.
When it was filled to capacity, the lake flooded 46 square miles
where tribal leaders say some 20,000 Winnemen Wintu once lived
along the McCloud River. Their numbers fell to 395 at the turn of
the century, with thousands massacred by western settlers and
ravaged by disease during the Gold Rush. Today, the tribe counts
122 enrolled members, about a fifth of whom live in a makeshift
village of trailers and a house on 42 acres of private land a few
miles from the McCloud River, some 225 miles north of San
Lake Shasta is the starting point for the federally run Central
Valley Project, a system of 21 reservoirs, canals and aqueducts
that funnel water to some 3.2 million acres of farmland and
supplies water to about 2 million people.
Supporters say an enlarged lake is needed to meet the needs of
California's growing population. The larger reservoir also would
be able to store more cold water, which is needed to help the
salmon that used to migrate to cooler water upstream before the
dam blocked their path, according to the U.S. Bureau of
The bureau is studying whether to raise the dam by 6½ to 18½ feet,
which would enlarge the reservoir by more than a tenth of its
current size. That's enough water to serve the city of Los Angeles
for more than year.
"What's so potentially promising about raising Shasta Dam, all
things considered, is an opportunity to provide more storage at a
facility that's already in place," said Ron Ganzfried, a
supervisor in the Bureau of Reclamation's regional planning
A higher dam also would provide more hydropower, flood protection
along the upper Sacramento River and combat future water shortages
expected to come with climate change, according to a recent bureau
Although the price tag is steep - with preliminary costs ranging
from $531.3 million to $854.9 million - it's far less than the
cost of building a new dam. For example, the state estimates it
could cost $3.6 billion to build a reservoir in a valley north of
Sacramento that would store roughly the same amount of water as
would be added behind a taller Shasta dam.
That makes it an attractive solution for California's farmers and
municipal water agencies whose water supplies have dwindled after
two dry winters and a federal court order that greatly reduced
water diversions to protect threatened delta fish.
But conservation groups are concerned that swelling of the lower
portion of the McCloud River would ruin one of the state's prized
trout streams. They also question whether the additional cold
water that would be stored behind a higher Shasta Dam would be
saved and released for migrating salmon, as government officials
Instead, environmental groups favor building bypasses for salmon
to get them around the dam and into the McCloud River. They also
advocate paying farmers and other users to increase water
"We need to come up with permanent solutions that will increase
flexibility and provide what we need for the salmon rather than
reinvesting in the very projects that caused the problem," said
Mindy McIntyre, a water specialist at the nonprofit Planning and
Federal officials say environmental organizations and the Winnemen
Wintu tribe will be consulted as plans move forward over the next
few years, but how much sway the tribe - which is not a federally
recognized tribe - will have to block the dam project is
questionable. Congress must still authorize and fund the project.
Although the tribe is small in number, its ties to the area remain
central to preserving its heritage. The rocky shoreline along the
McCloud River is where tribal members come at least once a year to
celebrate the womanhood of their teenage girls. Medicinal plants
are ground on a special rock and traditional prayers are offered.
Across the river, toddlers are introduced to another rock where
tribal elders tell their ancestral stories. Both cultural spots
could be swamped by the rising water if Shasta Dam is raised.