The Reservoir Stops Here

By Will Parrish

Part I
October 15, 2015

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.

A map of proposed dams and reservoirs on North Coast rivers. Note the approximate location of the currently planned Sites Reservoir.
A map of proposed dams and reservoirs on North Coast rivers. Note the approximate location of the currently planned Sites Reservoir.

Part II
October 22, 2015

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.”


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