Mark Miyoshi and Chief Caleen Sisk watch as Jesse Sisk and James Ward work on lighting the ceremonial fire. (Photo: Dan Bacher)
For the US Bureau of Reclamation and National Park Service, the 602 foot-high Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River north of Redding is a keystone of the Central Valley Project and a monument to engineering skill.
“Shasta Dam, dwarfed only by Hoover and Grand Coulee dams when it was completed on the Sacramento River in 1945, is breathtaking not only for its great size, but for its majestic setting in the southern range of the Cascades,” according to the National Park Service.
However, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe has a much different view of the dam and the reservoir it created. Tribal Leaders view the massive curved concrete dam - and a federal plan to raise the dam 18-1/2 feet - as a “Weapon of Mass Destruction.” This dam expansion plan would flood many of the remaining sacred sites of the Tribe that weren’t inundated by the construction of Shasta Dam in the 1940s.
"In 2004, we held a War Dance on Shasta Dam, because that's the Weapon of Mass Destruction," said Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe before the four-day War Dance that ended Sunday, September 14. "That's the weapon that took our lands, flooded our sacred places, covered up our burials - everything. And left us with nothing."
“We gave up a lot of our homeland for the sake of the California people, and got nothing in return. Now the government wants to take our sacred places, and again we get nothing in return. How is this fair, over and over again?” she asked.
Before the War Dance began Thursday evening, two Winnemem Wintu War Dancers, Jesse Sisk and James Ward, worked hard with their fire kit until they were able to light the ceremonial fire at the center of the dance site overlooking Shasta Dam and Reservoir.
After the fire was lit and the flames leaped into the air on the warm September night, Chief Caleen Sisk gave a blessing and talked about the war dance and four-day fast that the tribe would conduct to stop the federal plan to raise Shasta Dam.
“We lost our homes on the river to create a better life for everybody else but the Winnemem Wintu Tribe,” Chief Sisk said. “The 1941 Act was supposed to protect us, but it didn’t.”
The law Sisk referred to was 55 Stat 612. When Shasta Dam was first proposed, Congress passed this law authorizing the federal government to seize the lands and burial grounds that the Winnemem had for a thousand year. Unfortunately, promises were made to the Tribe in 55 Stat 612 that still have not been kept.
“Our sacred places are still here,” she emphasized. “We are putting out our way and our songs so we can continue our way of life.”
“We will pray so we can have a better life not only for the Winnemem but for indigenous people all over the world,” Sisk said, pointing to the battle by Native Hawaiians to stop the the building of a new telescope on their sacred mountain, Mauna Kea.
“We pray that the spirit beings hear us and bring all of our helpers, from the high mountain meadows all of the way to the ocean,” she continued. “Our concern is the health of the waterways. We are here at the dam that blocks the salmon on a river that should be full of salmon.”
She said that California should finally acknowledge its unique role as one of four salmon states on the West Coast.
“We should be a salmon state, not a watermelon or pistachio state. We have the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. We have some of the largest salmon rivers in the West, but people have given these up for agribusiness, for large farms in a desert," Chief Caleen Sisk said.
She reiterated that Shasta Dam is “a weapon of mass destruction” against the Winnemem Wintu and said the idea of dams is a “horrible archaic project.”
“Maybe we can’t stop them – but we will have a clear conscience the Winnemem did all we could,” Chief Sisk said.
About 15 minutes later, the Winnemem War Dancers, clad in their traditional feathered headdresses and regalia, danced as the Winnemem women, wearing white deerskin dresses and wearing traditional basket hats, sang songs and prayed.
The Winnemem invoked the War Dance in 1887 against a fish hatchery, the Baird US Fish Hatchery, on the McCloud River that threatened the salmon and the Winnemem way of life.
The Winnemem again held a War Dance at the dam in 2004 to commit themselves to the protection of their land and their salmon. Now that the Winnemem face even more of their sacred sites and culture being submerged by the dam, they conducted the dance once again this September.
Before the ceremony, I interviewed several of the War Dancers, all of whom emphasized that the Shasta Dam raise is deeply interconnected with Governor Jerry Brown’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan to build the peripheral tunnels and Proposition 1, the water bond, which will fund the building of Sites Reservoir.
David Martinez, who also danced during the war dances of 2004, 2009 and 2012, said, “Sites, the water bond, the tunnels and the raise of Shasta Dam are all interconnected. Without one, the others don’t work. Right now we transport all of the water that we can to the San Joaquin Valley.”
“We need more tunnels and aqueducts – for what? If the dam doesn’t go up, Sites Dam doesn’t come in and we don’t need the tunnels,” said Martinez.
He sees the tunnels as Brown’s “Zombie Plan back from the dead." “We killed off the peripheral canal with the vote against it in 1982. He’s brought it back with ‘Zombie Juice’ as the tunnels,” he quipped.
“Since the 1800s, they’ve tried to wipe us out, but we’re still here,” Martinez emphasized. “The main thing is that we keep our sacred sites alive because we still use them. By going there, we are being with the spirits. That’s the way our culture doesn’t die or disappear.”
Martinez noted that there are many Tribal people who don’t have what the Winnemem have. “We have an unbroken connection with our sacred sites,” he stated. “We do ceremony up and down the river. We were never transported out of here and we’re in our original home – we’ve never lost our songs, culture, way of life. We’re still here.”
“Every water monger would rather see us drown or go away. We’re fighting against almost insurmountable odds –but we will win,” Martinez affirmed.
He also invoked Chief Caleen Sisk’s characterization of Shasta Dam as “a weapon of mass destruction against us."
"It’s just as powerful as a nuclear bomb. It destroyed our home, salmon, our way of life. Now they want to flood us out again. How many times do we have to suffer this? We’re not going to go away. We’ve been here since the dawn of time – and we will be here at the end of time," he stated.
Gary Mulcahy, a War Dancer who served on the stakeholders group during the Delta Vision process from 2005 to 2007, said the Bureau of Reclamation is submitting an EIS/EIR for the dam raise proposal to the Secretary of Interior, set for approval in December. There are three similar alternatives, all of which propose an 18-1/2 foot dam raise and hold the same amount of water.
“If Congress approves a bill written by Congressman Jim Costa, it will fund the proposal to raise Shasta Dam. They just need the recommendation from the Secretary of the Interior to do it,” he said.
“We are doing the war dance because we have to let the salmon know that we are fighting for them. The Tribe has to make sure that we bring them home and to ensure the sacred sites that would be flooded by the dam raise will be there for them and for generations to come,” he explained.
The one positive development lately that Mulcahy noted is the bill, H. R. 5425, introduced in the House of Representatives last week by Congressmen Ami Beri, Jerry McNerney and John Garamendi to block the use of any federal funds for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan to build the peripheral tunnels.
“If it is understood that the tunnels are a bad deal, maybe somehow in the mix they will understand the the dam raise is a bad deal also. If the EPA is saying the BDCP is such a bad idea, maybe they will understand raising the dam and committing cultural genocide upon those who gave their land for the lake is a bad idea also,” he said.
He emphasized, “We’re amazed that people don’t understand that the Central Valley Project is from Shasta Dam all of the way to the Delta Estuary. To oppose one is to oppose the other. All that has been presented to the public by state officials are falsehoods and misinformation that the purpose of the dam is ecosystem restoration or salmon restoration when it’s actually to provide more water to farmers growing water intensive crops in the desert.”
He concluded, “Dams don’t create water – I’ve never seen a dam rain!”
Michael Preston, Winnemem War Dancer, who graduated last year from U.C. Berkeley with a B.S. in Society and the Environment and is currently an Oakland resident, said, “The war dance is against the raising of Shasta dam. It’s not against Obama. But if he comes out against us, then it’s against him too.”
He pointed out that the War Dance is held for both spiritual and political reasons.
“The spiritual reason is because spirits are calling us to tell us what to do to protect the salmon. Then the politics come in – the politics are what threatens our livelihood,” he noted.
He strongly disagreed with the contention of Bureau of Reclamation officials that the dam raise would "help" salmon by providing cold water temperatures for Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River below the dam.
“The salmon are threatened and there is no plan for getting the salmon around the dam to swim up to their headwaters in the McCloud River,” he said. “The plan does nothing for the salmon. The hundreds of miles of salmon habitat cut off from spawning are what they need, not the Shasta Dam raise.”
He concluded the claim that the dam raise will "help" salmon “is just a ploy to greenwash the raising of the dam.”
The Winnemem Wintu held the War Dance under a permit issued by The Bureau of Reclamation. The Tribe has held numerous meetings with the BOR to raise questions about the feasibility of the BOR’s plans, the impacts it will have on the tribe and their way of life, and the troubled history between the tribe and the BOR.
However, Tribal leaders said that in spite of the numerous terminal flaws with the dam proposal, the BOR is going ahead with plans to raise the dam and will submit its final EIS/EIR to the Secretary of Interior in December. It anticipates the final project plan will be submitted to Congress for approval no later than March 2015.
The Tribe has consistently requested that the BOR study alternatives to raising the dam such as better management practices for existing reservoirs and conservation options, as well as better protection of the fish populations.
“Any raising of the dam, even a few feet, will flood some of our last remaining sacred sites on the McCloud River – sites we still use today,” said Chief Sisk. “We can't be Winnemem any place else but the McCloud River. The dam raise is a form of cultural genocide."
Background on Shasta Dam Raise and BDCP:
Raising Shasta Dam will damage, destroy and inundate cultural resources along the McCloud River, sites that are vital to future generations and are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as Traditional Cultural Properties, according to the Winnemem Wintu.
The Shasta Dam raise takes place in tandem with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) to build the peripheral tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the proposal to build Sites Reservoir on the west side of the Sacramento Valley. The BDCP is an environmentally destructive $67 billion project that will export massive quantities of northern California water for use by San Joaquin Valley corporate agribusiness interests, Southern California water agencies and oil companies conducting fracking and steam injecting operations,
The construction of the twin tunnels will hasten the extinction of Sacramento River Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species, as well as imperil the steelhead and salmon populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers. The project will also take vast tracts of Delta farmland, among the most fertile on the planet, out of production in order irrigate toxic, drainage-impaired land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
"I'm still appalled that a lot of people don't make the connections between the Shasta Dam raise, the BDCP and Sites Reservoir, which is in the water bond (Proposition 1)," said Chief Sisk. "There is not going to be more water for the tunnels if Sites Reservoir isn't built and Sites can't be filled unless the Shasta Dam is raised."
"The BDCP can't exist without the Shasta Dam raise and the construction of Sites Reservoir to store water for the tunnels. It's all one project - I don't know where people think the water is going to come from," she concluded.
The Winnemem Wintu Tribe over the past 10 years has played a key leadership role in the campaign to oppose the peripheral tunnels and the water bond. The Tribe is also working on a plan to return native winter run Chinook salmon, now thriving in the Rakaira River in New Zealand, to the McCloud River above Shasta Dam. They are researching and developing a proposal for a passageway around Shasta Dam for the returning spawning salmon and the outgoing ocean bound salmon fingerlings.
“While there has not been a confirmation that any fish have died as a result of Ich, we are extremely concerned that there could be another fish kill in the coming weeks if additional flows are not released. We appreciate that the Bureau of Reclamation heeded our request to send emergency flows down the Klamath River,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr., Chair of the Yurok Tribe.
Feds release emergency flows after fish parasite found in Klamath by Dan Bacher The Bureau of Reclamation at 10 a.m. today began to release additional water from Trinity Reservoir in response to the discovery of an Ich parasite infection in Chinook salmon in the lower Klamath River and at the request of the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes. A massive ich infestation among overcrowded fish led to a massive fish die-off in September 2002 in the lower Klamath River. Over 68,000 fish perished in the largest adult salmon die off in U.S. history. Starting today and for the next seven days, the flow rate from Lewiston Dam on the Trinity river will be increased to a maximum of about 3,400 cubic feet per second (cfs), which will provide a flow rate of approximately 5,000 cfs in the lower Klamath River. This is double the 2,500 cfs flow sustained since August 23. It will require approximately 35,000-40,000 acre-feet to accomplish the flow doubling, according to a news release from Reclamation. The public is urged to take all necessary precautions on or near the river while flows are high during this period. "On Monday, Sept. 15, scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Fish Health Center captured and examined 20 fish from the lower Klamath River mainstem. Of those 20, nine tested positive for Ich parasites, with six of those nine determined to be severe. Ich was the primary pathogen responsible for the fish die-off in 2002," the Bureau stated. The Fish Health Center’s findings are well above the emergency response criteria described in an August 2013 joint memorandum from USFWS and NOAA Fisheries. The recommended response is an immediate doubling of the flow rate in the lower Klamath River for seven days - and those increased releases began today. “This is the only possible means of preventing or reducing the severity of a parasite outbreak,” said Mid-Pacific Regional Director David Murillo. “We are greatly concerned about the impact today’s decision may have on already depleted storage levels, particularly the cold water pool in Trinity Reservoir. We must, however, take all reasonable measures to prevent a recurrence of the fish losses experienced in 2002.” The Yurok Tribe applauded the release of increased flows down the Trinity River to avert a fish kill on the lower Klamath. “While there has not been a confirmation that any fish have died as a result of Ich, we are extremely concerned that there could be another fish kill in the coming weeks if additional flows are not released. We appreciate that the Bureau of Reclamation heeded our request to send emergency flows down the Klamath River,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr., Chair of the Yurok Tribe. On Friday, September 12, the Yurok Fisheries Program hand-delivered slides, made from imprints of the gills of salmon believed to be sickened by Ich, to the USFWS Fish Health Center in Anderson, Ca. Over the weekend Fisheries crews continued to collect fish, many of which later tested positive Ich. On Monday, the Fisheries Program and Dr. Scott Foote from the center examined the 26 fish for Ich. Ich outbreaks are the result of a combination of three factors - low flows, warm water and high fish densities, according to the Tribe. The Klamath River Basin is suffering through three years of extreme drought and is seeing a larger than predicted run of salmon in a relatively low flowing river. "Prior to this year’s fall run of Chinook salmon, the Yurok Tribe, anticipating unhealthy river conditions that could trigger a fish kill, submitted two formal requests to the Secretary of Interior asking that additional flows be sent down the Klamath River from August 26 to September 21," The Tribe said. "Originally, the BOR declined to implement the Yurok Tribe’s proposal for additional flows to lessen the likelihood of another fish kill. At the Yurok Tribe’s request, the BOR reconsidered its decision to not provide these additional flows from August 23 – mid-September to protect fish." Chairman O’Rourke said. “We are glad that BOR reconsidered our request and most likely the earlier releases prevented a large-scale fish kill similar to what took place on the Yurok Reservation in 2002." Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairwoman Danielle Vigil-Masten requested Monday afternoon that the Bureau of Reclamation immediately double the flows released into the Trinity from Lewiston Dam, according to a Hoopa Valley Tribe press release. "The Hoopa Valley Tribe is very appreciative of the earlier action that Reclamation took by releasing preventative flows," Vigil-Masten stated. “We are in another stage that we did not anticipate and we shouldn’t deviate from what the science tells us to do. We expect that Reclamation will take the right action, which is to release the emergency flows that are called for under the criteria.” "This year, like in 2002, massive amounts of water have been diverted from the Klamath and Trinity Rivers to agricultural users hit by severe drought, leaving only a small portion of the rivers’ natural flows to sustain their ecosystems," the Tribe noted. Below are the press releases from the Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes regarding the increased flows: Yurok Tribe Press Release:
At the Tribe’s Request, the BOR is sending emergency flows down the Klamath
Tribal biologists find Ich, the pathogen responsible for the 2002 fish, for the first time in 11 years
Today, following the discovery of a significant number of salmon infected with the deadly parasite Ichthyophthirius multifiliis or Ich and at the request of the Yurok Tribe, emergency flows will be sent down the Klamath River.
On Monday, September 15, the Yurok Fisheries Program, along with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s California-Nevada Fish Health Center, examined several Klamath River Chinook salmon and confirmed the presence of the deadly parasite, which was responsible for the 2002 fish kill.
Ich was found in 11 of the 26 fish that the Yurok Fisheries Program sampled yesterday. Six of the salmon were severely infected with the ciliated protozoan parasite. This is the first time Ich has been detected since the Yurok Fisheries Program began monitoring for it in 2003, following the 2002 fish kill.
The prevalence of Ich exceeded a threshold identified by USFWS/NMFS during 2013 for releasing emergency flows to prevent a major disease outbreak. BOR’s decision today to double the flow in the Lower Klamath will help minimize the risk of a major fish kill.
“While there has not been a confirmation that any fish have died as a result of Ich, we are extremely concerned that there could be another fish kill in the coming weeks if additional flows are not released. We appreciate that the Bureau of Reclamation heeded our request to send emergency flows down the Klamath River,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr.
If the additional flows were not released back in August, it is highly likely there would have already been a massive fish kill on the Klamath River.
Last Friday, the Yurok Fisheries Program hand-delivered slides, made from imprints of the gills of salmon believed to be sickened by Ich, to the USFWS Fish Health Center in Anderson, Ca. Over the weekend Fisheries crews continued to collect fish, many of which later tested positive Ich. On Monday, the Fisheries Program and Dr. Scott Foote from the center examined the 26 fish for Ich.
“This quick response from the BOR and USFWS Fish Health Center will greatly lessen the chance of another fish kill,” Chairman O’Rourke said.
The Yurok Tribe will continue to monitor fish health in the Lower Klamath River until the fall run has subsided.
Ich outbreaks are the result of a combination of three factors, which consist of low flows, warm water and high fish densities. The Klamath River Basin is suffering through three years of extreme drought and is seeing a larger than predicted run of salmon in a relatively low flowing river.
Prior to this year’s fall run of Chinook salmon, the Yurok Tribe, anticipating unhealthy river conditions that could trigger a fish kill, submitted two formal requests to the Secretary of Interior asking that additional flows be sent down the Klamath River from August 26 to September 21. Originally, the BOR declined to implement the Yurok Tribe’s proposal for additional flows to lessen the likelihood of another fish kill. At the Yurok Tribe’s request, the BOR reconsidered its decision to not provide these additional flows from August 23 – mid-September to protect fish.
“We are glad that BOR reconsidered our request and most likely the earlier releases prevented a large-scale fish kill similar to what took place on the Yurok Reservation in 2002,” Chairman O’Rourke said.
Based on the observations of Yurok fisheries biologists and tribal fishers, it is likely that this year’s run of Chinook salmon was substantially under predicted. During crowded conditions, such as during a large escapement year, Ich is more readily passed from one fish to the next. In order to reduce fish densities and the chance of another catastrophic fish kill, the Yurok Tribe plans reopen the subsistence fishery for two weeks, with a 2-day closure each week for the protection of Coho.
Hoopa Valley Tribe Press Release:
The Hoopa Valley Tribe took swift action responding to the Klamath River fish kill and contacted the Bureau of Reclamation Regional Director, Dave Murillo. A potentially catastrophic outbreak of disease among fall Chinook salmon has today commenced in the lower Klamath River. Samples examined by Dr. Scott Foott show infection with ich of at least nine fish, including six with “severe” infestations.
Consequently, an emergency doubling of flows at the USGS “KNK’ gage from pre-existing levels for a period of 7 consecutive days, will be required in an attempt to avoid a massive fish kill. They asked Mr. Murillo to please take action immediately to release emergency flows. Our leadership is currently in discussion with Mr. Murillo on the proposed action.
Chairwoman Danielle Vigil-Masten stated that, “The Hoopa Valley Tribe is very appreciative of the earlier action that Reclamation took by releasing preventative flows. We are in another stage that we did not anticipate and we shouldn’t deviate from what the science tells us to do. We expect that Reclamation will take the right action which is to release the emergency flows that are called for under the criteria.”
Dr. Scott Foott, a pathologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, discovered severe ich (ichthyophthirius multifiliis) infestations in fall run Chinook salmon taken from the Lower Klamath River.
Massive ich infestations among overcrowded fish led to a massive fish die-off in 2002, which left tens of thousands of fish dead and dying along the Klamath and Trinity Rivers.
Robert Franklin, senior hydrologist with Hoopa Tribal Fisheries, said, “The fear is that all the fish might die in the Lower Klamath like they did in 2002.”
This year, like in 2002, massive amounts of water have been diverted from the Klamath and Trinity Rivers to agricultural users hit by severe drought, leaving only a small portion of the rivers’ natural flows to sustain their ecosystems.
As more water is diverted away from local rivers, lower water flow leads to higher temperatures in the water, and diseases and parasites spread among fish crowded into the few deep pools along the river.
Franklin said only an immediate doubling of flows on the Trinity could prevent the infection from spreading rapidly. “It needs to take place immediately because the water will take several days to reach the Lower Klamath.”
Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairwoman Danielle Vigil-Masten requested this afternoon that the Bureau of Reclamation immediately double the flows released into the Trinity from Lewiston Dam.
“We expect that the Bureau of Reclamation will take the right action and release the emergency flows that are called for,” Vigil-Masten said.