A Little Justice: Settler Colonialism, Shasta Dam, and the Metabolic Rift in California’s Hydrologic Cycle
California’s water resource management relies on the Central Valley Project. This network of dams, canals, pumps, and diversions extracts water from the northern, wetter parts of the state and subsequently conveys water south to irrigate agriculture in the semi-arid San Joaquin Valley. Shasta Dam, the lynchpin of the Central Valley Project, sits at the confluence of the Sacramento, Pit, and McCloud Rivers. The Bureau of Reclamation plans to enlarge Shasta Dam and Reservoir in order to provide additional water to agribusiness interests. Westlands Water District, the largest and wealthiest water district in the United States, has argued that the Dam raise is necessary to secure agricultural production against drought. However, the initial construction of Shasta Dam flooded approximately 90% of the traditional and allotment land of the Winnemem Wintu, who were never compensated for the loss. The Winnemem Wintu argue that because the Dam raise would destroy dozens of additional sacred sites, the Dam raise constitutes cultural genocide. In this thesis, I interrogate the political ecology and environmental history of Shasta Dam in order to place the Dam raise in historical, political economic, and ecological context. I argue that the capitalist logic of accumulation and the settler colonial logic of elimination intersect in California’s water resource management. The Central Valley Project was conceptualized by the State of California in the 1920’s as a “salvage” project to rescue capitalist agriculture from the ecological barrier of aridity. When it was constructed, the Central Valley Project simultaneously dispossessed Indigenous peoples and generated a metabolic rift. Drawing from the work of Patrick Wolfe (2006; 2016), I argue that the displacement of the Winnemem Wintu in the 1930’s must be understood a function of settler colonial structures of elimination; no clean line can be drawn to separate the construction of Shasta Dam from the 1848-1873 California Genocide. Drawing from Foster, Clark, and York (2010), I theorize the Central Valley Project’s disruption to the flows and flood patterns of Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers as a metabolic rift in the hydrologic cycle, a “hydrologic rift”. I argue that declines in wetland and floodplain habitat, groundwater availability, and water quality are all symptomatic of this hydrologic rift. The dams of the Central Valley Project also blocked the majority of cold-water tributary habitat in California, preventing salmon from reaching their spawning grounds. The subsequent extirpation of Chinook salmon from the McCloud River is of particular importance to the Winnemem Wintu, who consider salmon a relative. The Shasta Dam raise maintains the hydrologic rift, further dispossesses the Winnemem Wintu, and contributes to extractive water policies which threaten endangered salmon populations and disproportionately impact Indigenous communities. The profits of agribusiness in the Central Valley today are predicated upon the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the elimination of Indigenous ecologies in California.