Shasta Dam Archives - Eva Varga

March 14, 20141

For many regions of California, 2013 ended as the driest year in recorded history. That trend has continued into 2014, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought state of emergency in January of this year. Though rains have begun to fall and storms have threatened some regions with flooding due to the lack of vegetation after recent fires, officials are clear that the precipitation will do little to offset the years of drought.

feast or famineInspired to see the effects of the drought, we took a drive a few weeks ago up to Lakeview along the shore of Lake Shasta in Northern California. On this walk, we looked for signs of the weather’s effect in nature and especially for the effects on food, water, and shelter for animals.

We also observed evidence that man has changed the environment. The construction of Shasta Dam in the 1940s created a 4.5 million acre‐foot reservoir, the largest in the state. The dam captures water from three rivers (the upper Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit). As a result of the dam construction, abandoned towns, roads, and railways ended up under water.

The extremely low water level at Shasta Lake has revealed this part of the state’s history.  Today’s low water level is revealing some interesting things from that bygone era – like the old railroad lines that used to run through the area. Tunnels and train trestles that are normally under about 100 feet of water are now visible.

We enjoyed walking around the lake bed. As we did so, we marveled at the normally hidden engineering projects. The sediment was so soft, we were able to observe animals tracks and small vegetation taking root.

Creative Nature WalksFeast or Famine? is one of many suggested nature study outings in Creative Nature Walks, a fun, new book by Cindy West.  For families new to nature study, Creative Nature Walks is a great way to begin a weekly outing with your family.  She provides more than 100 exciting nature walks ideas that are sure to get you out the door in minutes and grow your family’s love for nature. For experienced families like us, her ideas provided a new spark; a little twist on our usual routine.  I love that!



March 23, 20122

I keep a list of local places we want to explore and adventures we hope to someday take part … essentially a  field trip wish list.  I’ve had ‘hydroelectric dam’ on the list for some time … and this week, we were finally able to check this one off the list.

View of Shasta Dam and Shasta Lake as you approach the dam site.

We joined up with a charter school to take part in an organized field trip to Shasta Dam – located north of Redding on the Sacramento River.  It turned out to be a fabulous experience.  We all learned so much – each of us connecting with something different the interpreter said.  The kids were intrigued and listened attentively the entire hour of the tour. We had previously studied energy resources and electricity so this field trip helped to clarify many things for us.

The view overlooking the dam as we walked to the tower / elevator for the start of the tour.

Initial construction of the Shasta Dam began in 1938 with excavation and the relocation of the Southern Pacific Railroad that ran through the dam site.  A tunnel was blasted through the nearby hillside to temporarily detour the train during construction, moving it away from the excavation work.  Along the Sacramento River in Redding, California, aggregate was gathered and delivered to stockpiles near the dam site by way of a 9.6 mile long conveyor belt, the longest of its type in the world.  The conveyor belt transported tons of gravel that would be used in the concrete mix to build the dam.

The conveyor belt that brought gravel from Redding to the construction site of Shasta Dam.

With excavation complete, construction on the dam began.  Freshly mixed concrete was delivered to forms (50′ x 50′ and 5′ deep) using 8-cubic yard buckets suspended from a cableway system used to move the concrete to waiting crews.  The massive blocks were built one on top of another, first to form the abutments, and finishing the dam by completing the spillway.

As the abutments rose, crews were busy building the permanent relocation track for the Southern Pacific Railroad, above where the new lake would be formed.  When this track was completed, the train was moved to its new location and the spillway construction began.  Before this could happen, an earthen coffer dam was built across the river upstream of the dam site, causing the river to rise and find the now empty railroad tunnel.  The river was allowed to flow past the dam site through the tunnel, just as the train had years before.

We stood in the south end of the tunnel (it has since been mostly filled in).  Inside, you could see evidence of soot on the ceiling and despite the fact that they dug down several feet from the train bed, the water level came to nearly the full height of the tunnel. The water level was evident where the soot had been scoured off the wall.  Buddy was intrigued by this tunnel and was delighted to have seen the redesigned locomotives (cab forward) that were necessitated due in part to this tunnel at the California State Railroad Museum earlier this year.  The tunnel was so long it would take a train more than five minutes to travel through it. As result, Southern Pacific rebuilt the train locomotive, putting the cab in the front and the tender and smoke stack behind to prevent asphyxiation.

While walking inside the dam, we were lead through this 300 ft hallway.  The acoustics were so good here that we could stand at one end and not only hear the echo at the other end of the hall, but literally the sound wave as it went past. This was a highlight of the tour for me.

The generators at the base of the dam, capable of producing 710 megawatts of power.

Buddy was also intrigued by the generators.  As we walked through this area, he turned to me and began a lengthy narration of one of his favorite episodes of World’s Toughest Fixes, the Columbia River Dam. I love it when their natural interests blend with our learning.  Unschooling Rocks!  🙂

Admin Note :: I want to emphasize that I understand the construction of a dam is controversial.  It dramatically alters the landscape and affects not only the wildlife but also prevents Native Americans from accessing sites of cultural importance.  I share this with you for educational purposes and want to clarify that I also share with my children the perspectives and opinions of the local Wintu people.