Audio report by KQED Science Editor Craig Miller

Lake Shasta is the largest reservoir in California (Craig Miller)
Shasta Lake is the largest reservoir in California (Craig Miller)

Just north of Redding sits the imposing Shasta Dam, and behind it, the largest single reservoir in California, accounting for about 17 percent of the state’s total water storage capacity. Government officials are now completing plans to make Shasta Lake even larger by raising the height of the dam. The proposed dam expansion is motivated by California’s projected population growth and increasingly limited water storage options. The estimated cost of adding 18 1/2 feet to the 600-foot edifice is over $1 billion.

Unsurprisingly, the expansion proposal has sparked intense debates among local residents, Central Valley farmers, environmentalists, tribal groups and developers.

Same War, New Battle

It’s tempting to say, “Welcome to the newest chapter in California’s never-ending battles over water” — though it’s not really new. The idea dates back at least a decade, to the CALFED Bay-Delta water planning initiative. But the proposal is getting fresh buzz now that the federal Bureau of Reclamation has issued a draft environmental impact report on the plan recommending the extra 18 1/2 feet, and political pressure for more water storage is mounting in California.

“Anytime you want to change anything in California water, it’s a big deal” said Jay Lund, who directs the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California Davis. “There’s always 500 different interests lined up on 500 different sides. There’s always going to be someone who’s unhappy, and they all have lawyers.”


To understand the Shasta Dam proposal, a bit of historical perspective is helpful. When the dam was originally conceived in the 1930s, it was designed to be about 800 feet high. But the dam construction coincided with the outbreak of World War II, so limited manpower and scarce resources forced planners to scale back.

As a result, Shasta Dam currently stands at 602 feet, or about 200 feet lower than originally envisaged. So while it’s therefore possible (from a purely engineering standpoint) to raise the dam by an additional 200 feet, no one is seriously considering that. Federal engineers say the proposed 18 1/2 feet of additional concrete would add about 14 percent to the lake’s existing capacity.

The idea for adding capacity is to have a bigger bank for stockpiling water in wet years, which could then be tapped during dry years.

The obvious, immediate consequence of an 18 1/2 foot raise is that several homes and businesses along the shoreline would be inundated, forcing the government to compensate property owners.

“The water’s going to come up, so it’s going to take 11 of my 15 cabins out,” said Harold Jones, unrolling an aerial photo of his property. He and his wife have owned the Sugarloaf Cottages on the Sacramento River arm of Lake Shasta for 20 years. He said a government buyout of his property will push him into early retirement, with few alternate job prospects. “If they send us on our way and I lose my income, how am I going to support my family?”

Harold Jones owns Sugarloaf Cottages, which would be inundated if the lake level rose. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Jones and others believe that raising the lake will be the death knell for the resort town of Lakehead, which is a tiny town whose year-round population of about 500 balloons with the influx of boaters during the summer months.

For years, members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe of Native Americans have been railing against the raise. When the dam was first constructed in 1945, they lost lands they claim as part of their heritage. They argue that the proposed expansion would lead to the further demise of their cultural legacy, including the inundation of 60-to-80 of their remaining sacred sites, many still used for tribal rituals.

On the other side of the debate is Westlands Water District, a politically powerful agency that supplies water mostly to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. Westlands is a major beneficiary of Shasta water and would pay approximately 20 percent — or $200 million — of the estimated construction costs. Westlands general manager, Tom Birmingham, talks like it’s a bargain.

“If you’re talking about creating surface storage in the state of California, this is the best project in terms of bang for your buck from the perspective of providing water for fisheries, providing water for human uses and providing hydroelectric generation,” Birmingham told us in a recent interview.

Three Big Ideas

Other surface storage proposals of comparable cost and magnitude include Sites Reservoir and Temperance Flat. These projects have larger potential storage capacity, but also come with greater costs. Spokespeople for the Bureau of Reclamation expect draft environmental impact statements for both Sites Reservoir and Temperance Flat to be released in late-2013 or early-2014.

Birmingham and the Bureau of Reclamation claim that the deeper pool of water behind Shasta Dam would allow more frequent releases of cold water to benefit threatened salmon and other fish downstream. Several environmental and fish advocacy groups beg to differ, saying there are more effective and cost-efficient ways to protect Central Valley salmon than a billion-dollar dam project.

“Although theoretically there could be additional cold water — and there’s no doubt more of that is always better — it’s not guaranteed,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “Add to that the certainty that more water would be channeled north to south across the Delta, which will almost certainly entrain more salmon in the pumps or pull them off their natural migration path to their death in the interior delta, and this is a bad idea for salmon,” McManus wrote in an email to KQED.

A crucial point is that raising Shasta dam would not create water, it would only add storage potential. All in all, Lund is skeptical that spending over $1 billion is the best strategy for ensuring a healthy water supply, let alone water for fish. “I think it depends on what you want to accomplish,” says Lund. “If you’re going to add a large amount of surface storage to the system, Shasta is probably one of the better places to put it. But it does cost you money, and my question is ‘Is that the best investment of that money?’”

Lund has argued for a more “holistic” approach to California’s water conundrum, assessing the combined benefits of conservation and integrated management of surface and groundwater, rather than looking at big, individual engineering projects. “That’s the big fallacy around much of the discussion about storage in California,” says Lund. “We have a water shortage, not necessarily a storage shortage.”

The proposal to raise Shasta requires Congressional approval. The next step will be for the Bureau of Reclamation to submit a final recommendation to the Department of Interior. If Congress approves funding for raising Shasta, it’s expected that the issue will wind up before the courts. After all, this is California.

KQED Science Editor Craig Miller contributed to this story.

  • David Martinez

    The original dam has not been fully paid for. The 1941 Indian lands Acquisition Act has not been fulfilled. The lake has only been filled to capacity 15 times in 75 years, there fore there is no need to spend 1 billion dollars on the pipedream they can fill it every year.
    This is all about “paper water” water that does not exist, it is all bought, sold, traded and speculated on through false assertions we have the water to full fill the water contracts.
    The water contracts equal 7 to 10 times the available amount of fresh water in the western states.
    The dam is a scam, the tunnels are a boondoggle, designed to make Westlands, metropolitan water district, California Water contractors and other water barons very, very, very rich.

  • DavidsComments

    Does the upper Sacramento River really provide enough water to fill the dam that high? Whenever I drive up I5 over the lake, it is very low. Just raising the dam doesn’t mean enough water comes through the watershed to fill the dam and to keep the river running through the central valley.

    The only viable solution to California’s water wows is to require new development (residential, industrial, agricultural) to document a committed water supply. That will help manage future growth. Meanwhile, existing water consumers need to invest in ways to conserve water consumption. Some of the state’s agriculture interests have already started transitioning to crops that consume less water and have started implementing irrigation technologies that sense the ground moisture and provide just enough water exactly when it is needed.

    California must come to terms with the fact that the water supply is oversubscribed. The state needs to acknowledge that there is a finite amount of water available. That finite amount is variable depending on the weather. The state must plan for water supplies from low precipitation years, not from average or above average years. Priority must be given to the consumers that make the investment to reduce waste and to use the least amount of water most effectively.

    The water challenges will not be confined to California, or even the western CONUS. The entire globe is facing a challenge providing sufficient water. This, even more than energy, will be the greatest resource challenge of the 21s century.

    • Bruce Aronson

      Lets create a secondary gray water system for every new development. Meaning adding a second pipe for landscape water usage the biggest gusller of our water supply.

  • Jerry Cadagan

    Dam projects, whether new ones or raising existing ones, must be subjected to a basic test of economic common sense. If the additional water yield supports the capital investment then maybe that basic economic smell test has been passed. But historically Shasta has only filled 19% of the time over its life. So is getting a bit of extra water 19% of the time worth a $1 billion investment? Doubtful. The same problem exists with the Temperance Flat proposal; the additional yield simply doesn’t justify the investment. Temperance Flat is estimated to be a $3 billion investment.

    Birmingham of Westlands says they will pay 20% of the cost of raising Shasta. Who will pay the rest? And isn’t putting a comparable amount of money into 21st Century ideas like water recycling, stormwater capture, groundwater basin remediation, etc. a better investment long term?

    • David Martinez

      you the tax payers and the water end users in higher water rates. Wake up folks it is a screw job,

  • Alaska_Paul

    Filling the dam to a higher level seems to be a challenge, based upon historical information. The issue is how much water does California really need, and where are the needs. Supplying water to meet those needs should be based upon form following function. It is an issue of inputs and outputs—-and honesty in assigning those values without manipulating the data. Politics corrupts the process. There is a whole ocean full of water out there if you can desalinate it, and that comes down to economics. The West has always had cycles of water plenty and drought. Societies have lived and disappeared on availability of water throughout history. Water is available in California. The issue is: how much are residents willing to pay for it?

  • Gene Beley

    The federal government doesn’t recognize the Winnemem Wintu as an official tribe because our great government ERASED them from the federal registry before they built Shasta Dam. These are wonderful, very intelligent people. Anyone who has met Chief Cayleen Sisk or her son, a graduate of UC Berkeley, can’t help but to align themselves with their tribe’s cause and to tell our dishonorable government to quit treating them like non-humans.

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