In far Northern California, about 30 miles northeast of Mt. Shasta, the awe-inspiring Medicine Lake Highlands are a filigree of volcanic cannonades, a remote landscape of clear lakes, striking lava flows and mountains of glass-like obsidian.
Yet within the austere highlands exist numerous sacred sites that represent the spiritual heart of the Pit River Tribe, and beneath the highlands as well lies somewhere between 20 and 40 million acre-feet of pristine aquifer water, which some say may be California’s most important safeguard against prolonged drought.
But the future of both the Pit River Tribe’s religion and California’s water may be threatened by plans for geothermal development at Medicine Lake, the largest shield volcano.
“Medicine Lake, known to us as ‘Saht Tit Lah’ is a very special place, not just for Pit River people but for all people. Even the white people called it Medicine Lake because they experienced how the waters are healing,” said Radley Davis, Pit River tribal member and vice chair of the Native Coalition to Defend the Medicine Lake Highlands. “But the government and the corporations seem to be fighting the people and trying to destroy this place.”
On March 12, 2015, more than 150 Pit River, Hupa and Wintu people as well as environmentalists and other supporters marched through the streets of San Francisco and rallied at the 9th District Court of Appeals, where three judges heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by the Pit River Tribe and its allies contesting the legality of the geothermal plants.
Since the 1980s, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and energy corporation Calpine have been investigating massive geothermal power projects, which they acknowledge would desecrate the sacred areas around Medicine Lake where the Pit River Tribe conducts ceremonies, healings and gatherings. Though government officials argue the risk is minimal, new scientific studies indicate the hydraulic fracking technology that will be used at the power plants could contaminate a water source that is larger than the combined volume of California’s 200 biggest reservoirs.
Initially Calpine was investigating a couple different sites for a 49-megawatt plant, but a 2011 letter from Calpine to the BLM indicates it plans a 480-megawatt project, which Pit River officials say means they want to build five power plants in the Medicine Lake caldera.
“We’re here to take a stand against the federal government and Calpine, who are trying to destroy a sacred area and contaminate our water tables with their drilling,” said Pit River Tribe Chairman Mickey Gemmill. “We’re trying to protect this place for future generations for Pit River people, and we’re trying to protect the water for all of California.”
Beginning with sunrise prayers at Yerba Buena Gardens, a small patch of green among downtown’s glass buildings, the Pit River people and their supporters marched through the streets chanting “Protect Medicine Lake! Protect Human Rights!” and also carried banners reading “Water Is Life” and “Protect Sacred Sites.”
Outside the courthouse the rally continued and tribal elders spoke about the importance of the highlands to their people’s well-being. The area has been declared a Traditional Cultural District by the National Register of Historic Places, Pit River people use the lake’s water for healing and renewal, and there are also sacred places nearby that men use for rites of passage and women use for ceremonies.
Not only would drilling potentially contaminate the waters of the lake and the aquifer, the construction of the power plants would bring miles of new roadways, increased traffic and industrialize dozens of square miles of a relatively undisturbed area, said Michelle Berditschevsky, Senior Conservation Consultant for the Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center, a co-plaintiff on the lawsuit with the Pit River Tribe.
Yet the desecration of sacred sites and the possible poisoning of a massive underwater aquifer were not mentioned at the court hearing. The focus of the lawsuit is the legitimacy of 40-year geothermal leases BLM sold to Calpine for Medicine Lake with limited environmental review and no consultation with tribes.
The leases at issue were 1998 continuations of previous leases of Calpine, and federal attorneys representing BLM argued it was necessary to allow the extension of those leases without public input, tribal consultation or further environmental analysis to provide incentive for companies to invest in development.
Attorneys from the Stanford Law Clinic representing the Pit River Tribe and its allies countered that the law required BLM to consider public and tribal input before continuing the leases.
Though no decision is expected for several months, many left the court optimistic about how the Stanford attorneys fared.
“The United States must find room within the legal confines of our justice system to truly allow justice for Native people, not just rubber stamp corporate projects that destroy critical resources in the name of the dollar,” said Darcie Houck, an Indian Law expert and attorney who represents the Pit River Tribe. “Justice here can only mean finding in favor of the tribe.”