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Damning California's Future

Hoping to capitalize on the epic drought, the state's water industry wants to usher in a new era of dam-building in the state. But environmentalists say it would cost billions and do more harm than good.

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The Round Valley Indian Reservation, one of four California reservations that the federal government had established in the mid-19th century, was not only home to Round Valley's original inhabitants, the Yuki, but also indigenous people from throughout Northern California whose grandparents and great grandparents had been force-marched onto the reservation by the US Army and American vigilantes.

Ernie Merrifield, 74, is a Round Valley Indian of mixed Wailaki and Pit River ancestry and was among several spokespeople to emerge in the campaign against Dos Rios. "Richard Wilson was the first to stand up against the dam," recalled Merrifield, who has taught California Indian history at Humboldt State University and in public high schools. "In the end, we had elders going on television and saying, 'We were force-marched here, and we're not about to be forced to leave."

Merrifield added a cautionary note. "My elders told me this fight will never really be over," he said.

By the time I met Wilson, in late-September, the hills around Buck Mountain Ranch were a golden hue after weathering months of unending sunlight beating down out of cloudless skies. More than half the needles on many of the drought-stricken ponderosa pines and Douglas firs surrounding his ranch had died under the strain. As with so many landowners in California, he said it's the driest he's ever seen.

Nowadays, Wilson is mostly withdrawn from the day-to-day battles that characterize the world of California water politics. As a former director of Cal Fire, one of his main focuses is management of forests to reduce fuel loads. For several weeks this summer, Mendocino County and surrounding environs were blanketed with ash from wildfires that consumed roughly 150,000 acres in neighboring Lake County.

Seated beneath his mantlepiece, Wilson recalled the period after Ronald Reagan had decided against supporting the Dos Rios Dam when he worked for the passage of the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. "The way these developers do things is, if they get derailed, they come right back," he said. "They will continually come back as long as they see there's an opportunity. So, we tried to get it nailed down with as much protection as we could. It took us a couple of years running at the legislature to get [the Wild & Scenic Rivers] decision, but we finally did."


Corrections: The original version of this story misspelled Yolla Bolly Wilderness. It also mistakenly stated that the Westlands Water District has a contract to receive water from the State Water Project. Westlands is actually a contractor of the federally operated Central Valley Project.

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