DOI Scientists Ignored in Northern California Dam Project

Published Dec 17, 2019

What happened: The Department of the Interior (DOI) ignored its own scientists and approved a project to raise the height of California’s Shasta Dam in northern California despite the large impact it would have on ecology of the region. Building the Shasta Dam would have negative effects on the ecosystems of the rivers that feed the reservoir, on endangered species like the Chinook salmon, and on the ancestral land of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe.

Why it matters: It appears that a scientific report written by federal scientists was ignored in favor of political and corporate considerations. The report analyzed the impacts of the proposed Shasta Dam on the area’s ecosystem and found that the project would have devastating consequences on the environment. By greenlighting the building of the dam, the DOI refused to listen to its scientists and sidelined the science from the decision-making process, which will likely have enormous impacts on northern California’s fish, wildlife, ecology, and Indigenous lands.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) failed to consider a scientific report conducted by one of its own sub-agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and approved a project that would raise the height of the Shasta Dam in northern California in a way that is almost certain to imperil endangered species. Ignoring scientific evidence showing that a large construction project will have major consequences on the environment would put an ecosystem, as well as Indigenous community, at risk.

A study done by scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 highlights several concerns about the project’s impact on the ecology and wildlife in the region. First, it notes that some endangered species’ habitats may be affected by increasing the size of the dam, including the Shasta salamander and the Shasta sideband snail, which live on limestone outcrops near the dam. Also, raising the dam could cause the location of the freshwater – saltwater mixing zone to change, which would have ripple effects on the ecosystem of the Delta. Finally, raising the dam would lessen the flow of water downstream and therefore threaten a route that Chinook salmon use to spawn, which could significantly decrease the number of salmon in the river. Additionally, land culturally important to the Winnemem Wintu Tribe would be threatened by raising the dam, including a site that is important for a coming-of-age ceremony. The dam’s initial construction already flooded their ancestral burial grounds, and the new project will only exacerbate the harm to these important tribal lands.

The project has faced legal challenges in California, which has put the project on hold for the moment. A lawsuit filed by the Attorney General of California stated that the project violates the protections granted to the McCloud River under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, protections that were instituted based on “a review of comprehensive technical data evaluating resources and potential beneficial uses” of the river. As a result of the lawsuit, a Superior Court in California granted a preliminary injunction in July, which stopped the project. In November, Westlands Water District signed a stipulation with a group of conservation and fishing groups that fundamentally ends the company’s involvement with the project as it currently stands. While federal actions from the Trump administration ignored the science when approving the project, California state law, specifically the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, has temporarily stopped the project on the basis of the science showing the major impacts it would have on the McCloud River.

Secretary Bernhardt is a “walking conflict of interest,” especially in this case, as he previously worked as a lobbyist for the very company pressuring the DOI to build Shasta Dam, the Westlands Water District. Westlands stood to profit significantly from the project, as increasing the size of the dam would increase the reservoir of water that could be sold to California’s farmers, which in this case would have mostly benefited corporate agricultural operations. And this isn’t the first time that California’s industrial farmers would have benefited from water management decisions not based on science.

Unfortunately, the Shasta Dam episode is another blatant example of the Department of Interior ignoring their own scientists. Earlier this year, we learned that the Department of the Interior ignored scientists’ memos stating their concerns over plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This has been a pattern during the Trump administration overall: science and scientists are sidelined from the decision-making process, resulting in enormous consequences to the ecology of our American lands.

While the courts and public pressure have prevented this disastrous construction project from moving forward, the fact remains that rigorous scientific evidence was ignored by the people in charge of protecting our nation’s environment. By failing to incorporate science in the federal policymaking process, the Trump administration is signaling its willingness to erode the evidence-based decision-making process that guides the way we protect and safeguard the flora and fauna of our country.