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Proposal pits tribe against farmers
Raising of Shasta Dam would flood sacred spots

Herald and News 9/28/08, by SAMANTHA YOUNG AP

Proposals to raise the 602-foot, concrete Shasta Dam between 6.5 feet to 18.5 feet, are pitting water thirsty farmers against environmentalists and Democrats in the state Legislature who oppose the project.

SHASTA LAKE, Calif. — In this valley where four rivers meet, the Winnemen Wintu tribe fished and farmed for centuries, its villages always near the water’s edge.

Much of that heritage was lost during California’s era of dam building. The tribe’s ancestral land in Northern California was submerged when the federal government built a 602-foot dam downstream of their ceremonial and prayer grounds in 1945.

Now the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is considering enlarging Shasta Dam as a way to boost California’s water supply. If allowed to go forward, the project would flood what little remaining land once belonged to a tribe whose name translates as “middle water.”

“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 move it.”

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.

46 square miles

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.

What remains of their ancestral land, some 225 miles north of San Francisco, is 22 miles of rocky, steep canyon shoreline before the river ends at the reservoir.

Lake Shasta is the starting point for the federally run Central Valley Project, a system of 21 reservoirs, canals and aqueducts that funnels water to some 3.2 million acres of farmland and supplies water to about 2 million people.

Raising the dam would flood the remaining one-tenth of the tribe’s historical land along the McCloud River.

The land is divided between that administered by the U.S. Forest Service, private landowners and a parcel owned by the Westlands Water District, a massive Central Valley irrigation district. Last year, Westlands bought nearly 2,900 acres to keep it open for a raised Shasta Dam.

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 waters upstream before the dam blocked their path, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The bureau is studying whether to raise the dam between 6½ and 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 division.

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 report.

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.

In 2007, the Westlands Water District spent $35 million to keep land along the scenic McCloud River out of developers’ hands.

“Westlands recognizes that as one of the critical needs for water supply in the state,” water district spokeswoman Sarah Woolf said. “Westlands was concerned if development were to happen there, the raising of the dam would never be allowed to happen.”

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 claim.

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 conservation.

“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 Conservation League, based in Sacramento.

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 will have to block the dam project is questionable.

The tribe initially was recognized by the federal government under the 1851 Cottonwood Treaty, a pact that set aside a 35 square-mile reservation but was never ratified.

Recognized by Congress

It was recognized by Congress in 1941 legislation compensating the Winnemen Wintu for the land that would be submerged by the dam. The tribe never received the land that was intended as a trade-off.

But in 1979, when the federal government published a register of federally recognized tribes, the Winnemen Wintu were not on the list. The tribe has not sought recognition through the Department of Interior, said BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling.

Caleen Sisk-Franco, leader of the Winnemen Wintu tribe, looks over “pubity rock” that sits along the bank of of the McCloud River, near Shasta Lake, Calif. The rock, where once a year Sisk-Franco and members of her tribe gather to celebrate the womanhood of their teenage girls, is one of several tribal sacred spots that could be flooded over if Shasta Dam in enlarged.

Sisk-Franco says the Winnemen Wintu shouldn’t have to go through a lengthy bureaucratic process when Congress recognized the tribe more than 60 years ago and its members were given housing, education and health benefits for decades.

“We hope to be able to work with them, whether they are a federally recognized tribe or not,” BOR’s Ganzfried said. “We certainly recognize and respect their concerns. In order for any project to move forward, we like to find ways to minimize effects in any way we can.”

The bureau expects to finish its environmental reviews early next year and distribute them for public comment. Congress also must 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

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 waters of the McCloud River if Shasta Dam is raised.

In addition to flooding historical tribal lands, several U.S. Forest Service campsites would be moved to higher ground. Tribal leaders fear one of those campsites could be relocated to a hilltop where they name their newborns.

“Their sacred lands lie in a fairly strategic place for the government,” said state Assemblyman Jared Huffman, a Democrat from San Rafael.

A resolution he authored urging the federal government to formally recognize the tribe narrowly passed the state Legislature this summer.

Expanding Shasta Dam is one of five projects chosen by state and federal officials in 2000 as part of a master plan to improve California’s halfcentury-old water storage and delivery system. None of those projects has moved forward, in large part because of opposition from Democrats in the California Legislature.

It is questionable whether the federal government can get the state to help pay for the project. The federal government typically requires a partner to match half the cost, bureau spokeswoman Margaret Gidding said. In 1989, the Democratic-controlled Legislature forbid the state from participating in any project that would adversely affect the McCloud River, in large part to protect its prized trout fishing.

Local funding

Unless the state reverses its position, local water districts around the state would have to put up the required local funding.

Woolf, of the Westlands district, said the agency is willing to pay its share of any project that boosts water supplies.

Boats are seen cruising Shasta Lake, Calif. Proposals to raise the 602-foot concrete dam located in Northern California are pitting water thirsty farmers against environmentalists and Democrats in the state Legislature who oppose the project.
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