California’s drought and the battle for Medicine Lake

Plans are afoot to build power plants and frack near one of California’s biggest reserves of fresh water.

Medicine lake [Marc Dadigan/Al Jazeera]
The Pit River people have been fighting to save their sacred Medicine Lake [Marc Dadigan/Al Jazeera]

Redding, California – Before Leonard Lowry, a 20-year-old boxing champion from Susanville, California, was shipped off to fight in the Pacific during World War II, his Pit River tribal elders helped him prepare for battle. They fixed him a medicine bag with root and tobacco and had him run the full 11km circumference of remote Medicine Lake for good luck. 

As a rifleman with the 42nd Infantry Division in the Philippines and New Guinea, Lowry survived outbreaks of malaria, getting shot at three times and hand grenade fragments smashing his wrist.

He was awarded the Silver Star Medal – the third-highest military declaration for valour given to members of the US Armed Forces – and went on to have a sterling career as a military leader, said Radley Davis, a member of the Pit River tribe and vice chair of the Native Coalition for Medicine Lake Highlands Defense.

“Hearing about the long life he lived, the blessings he had, it was one of the stories about Medicine Lake and its sacredness that really made me want to do something to protect it,” Davis said.

The worst-case scenario is the hydrofluoric acid, the most likely fracking chemical, would mix with the shallow groundwater and acidify the water flowing to California's people and kill the fisheries.

by Robert Curry, geologist

Over nearly three decades of lawsuits, demonstrations, and public awareness campaigns, the Pit River people and their allies have been fighting plans to build geothermal power plants in the area.

On July 20, they scored an important legal victory when a federal appeals court ruled they had the right to challenge 26 of the land leases that the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had provided to the Calpine Corporation, without tribal consultation. These leases had effectively authorised Calpine to conduct test drilling and research geothermal development in the Medicine Lake Highlands.

This is the area where Medicine Lake, whose azure waters are believed by many tribes in northern California to heal and provide good fortune, lies nestled in a volcanic crater. 

The leases were continued for 40 years without the appropriate environmental review and again, without tribal consultation. 

The Pit River people say the plans to use hydraulic fracturing chemicals to drill almost 3km into the volcano, risk contaminating the sacred lake.

Furthermore, new research released this spring indicates that the lake, in addition to its religious and cultural importance to the Pit River tribe’s roughly 3,000 members, is also one of drought-stricken California’s last pristine supplies of water.

Medicine Lake is surrounded by a harsh landscape sculpted by centuries of eruptions and lava flows.

Beneath this volcanic fury lie aquifers that store massive volumes of clean water, feeding California’s arterial rivers that in turn support the state’s agriculture industry.

Untapped aquifers

A recent study conducted by retired University of California, Santa Barbara geologist Robert Curry, concluded that seeping snowmelt percolates for 20 to 40 years beneath Medicine Lake before emerging out of Fall River Springs, which he says is the third-largest spring in the world. 


There may be as much as 50 cubic km of clean water stored beneath Medicine Lake, nearly equal to the combined volume of California’s 200 largest surface water reservoirs.

And because the water is so “old” – circulating underground for decades before emerging in the springs – the aquifers have yet to be affected by the state’s five-year drought. 

Every year, Curry said, about 1.2 cubic km of water pour into Fall River Springs, flowing into the Pit River and then into the Shasta Dam reservoir, which is used to irrigate more than 1.2 million hectares of farmland in California’s desert-dry Central Valley.

By testing and analysing the chemical composition of the Fall River Springs water, Curry determined that 90 percent of it comes from the Medicine Lake aquifers.

Previous environmental studies had indicated – erroneously, according to Curry – that most of the Fall River Springs water comes from the Klamath River.

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BLM officials said they have yet to review Curry’s study, but are confident in the safety of the geothermal extraction process that Calpine plans to use.

“From my background, I would say the risk is low. You can’t ever eliminate any risk, but we’re making sure the company is very diligent, even making sure the casings of the test well they already have aren’t showing signs of corrosion, and they’re in good shape,” said BLM geologist Sean Haggerty.

Those environmental reviews were issued in the late 1990s, when Calpine submitted plans for 49.9mw power plants at two different sites, including one within the caldera, less than three kilometres from the lake.

The six-hectare power plants would have been the tallest structures in northern California and would fully industrialise the sacred areas with roads, well pads and transmission lines, according to a report by the Advisory Council on Historical Preservation. The council is an independent federal agency and has declared the 293sq km Medicine Lake Highlands to be a Traditional Cultural District.

In order to access the red-hot geothermal fluid, the fracking process would require chemicals – including, Curry said, the highly toxic hydrofluoric acid – to dissolve the rock.

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The scalding fluid would then be pumped to the surface of the plant, where steam would be produced to move the turbines. Then, the liquid would be treated and pumped back below the surface.

“The worst-case scenario is the hydrofluoric acid, the most likely fracking chemical, would mix with the shallow groundwater and acidify the water flowing to California’s people and kill the fisheries,” Curry said.

‘Not sustainable’

Calpine formulated these plans after decades of studying and drilling test wells in the region, thanks to the geothermal leases provided by BLM.

The Pit River tribe and other environmentalists believe correspondence between the BLM and Calpine indicates a likely new plan to have as many as five power plants.

They doubt anyone can claim the fracking process is safe, noting that too little is understood about the water systems beneath the volcano.

But, BLM officials said they would examine Curry’s study if a new plan were to be submitted.

“People from all over the world come here because they know the spiritual water can heal, and I would hate for my grandchildren not to be able to experience it,” said tribal elder Jessica Jim.

“[The] Creator made Medicine Lake for the people, not for [BLM] – and definitely not for geothermal,” Jim said.

Morning Star Gali, the Pit River tribe’s tribal heritage and preservation officer, echoed Jim’s concerns.

“They’re fast-tracking these ‘green energy’ projects, but they’re not sustainable within our tribal ways,” she said.

“When sacred sites are destroyed, it’s usually through industrial practises that hurt everyone.”

Source: Al Jazeera