Medicine Lake Highlands — environmental and cultural significance

Located 30 miles northeast of Mount Shasta, the remote and spectacular Medicine Lake Highlands encompass California’s most diverse volcanic fields on the continent’s largest shield volcano and huge source of water.

The azure waters of Medicine Lake lie embedded in this 500,000-year sculpture of volcanic fury, with its striking variety of lava flows, clear lakes, mountains of glass-like obsidian, white pumice, dark boulders, and silver-green mountain hemlock. The area’s clear skies are home to eagles, goshawks, and rare bats. Tall forests shelter spotted owls, Sierra martens, Pacific fishers, and sensitive plants. The biological integrity of the Highlands is essential to habitat connectivity in the region.

For ten thousand years this landscape has been a place of traditional spiritual practice to the Ahjumawi (Pit River) and Modoc, as well as to more distant tribes. In Native American creation stories, this landscape is a living scripture, and today they continue their prayer, vision questing, healing, and subsistence practices in the Highlands. The National Register of Historic Places has designated a 113-square-mile Medicine Lake Highlands Traditional Cultural in 1999 and 2005 that recognizes the cultural significance of the area.

A huge water resource for California

The Medicine Lake Volcano is an enormous pristine hydrological recharge and storage area for California’s water supply. It captures and discharges over 1.2 million acre-feet of snowmelt annually, emerging as the Fall River Springs, the largest spring system in the state, which sustains a world-class trout fishery before it flows into Shasta Lake Reservoir and the Sacramento River,[1] serving millions of Californians downstream.

A recent hydrogeological study identified significant data gaps and outdated baseline information pointing to the need for extensive scientific studies in order to protect this major groundwater resource.

“The Medicine Lake Aquifer provides an enormous free reservoir of pristine drinking water to the State of California that is always available and that buffers drought and surplus resources for farms and cities throughout the state,” said Dr. Robert Curry, the registered hydrogeologist who authored the study.

Industrial development threats and challenges

Since 1997, the Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center and our Native American and environmental allies have been battling multinational geothermal corporations to assure that polluting industrial geothermal energy development with associated hydraulic fracturing, acid leaching and habitat fragmentation will not get a foothold on this sacred ground.

Stanford Environmental Law Clinic has worked with us through administrative and court challenges, bringing a 2010 victory in the 9th Circuit Court that resulted in retraction of some of the lease extensions and called for a new environmental review. Our second court case currently disputes the remaining leases. Calpine Corporation is now proposing a fivefold increase in project size to 480 megawatts, with impacts that would be even more devastating to this remote pristine landscape and its source aquifer.

Taking the campaign to the state and national levels

We have initiated forming an Alliance of statewide and national organizations who will help us raise the visibility of the importance of permanently protecting the area, while we continue fostering our close regional partnerships that include Stanford Law Clinic, the Pit River Tribe, Native Coalition, and Medicine Lake Citizens for Quality Environment.

Our campaign to protect the Medicine Lake Highlands and pristine aquifer is at a vital juncture. Our second lawsuit is winding its way through the Ninth Circuit Court, winning us time to push for long-term protection. We now face an enormous opportunity to bring forth the compelling alternative vision and integrated grassroots, political, legal and scientific strategy into a coordinated campaign to win protection for the Medicine Lake Highlands. After three years of drought, we believe we can elevate the importance of protecting the Medicine Lake Highlands and Aquifer to a high state and national priority.

[1] Dr. Robert R. Curry. California’s Water Future: Hydrological Report on the Risks to the Medicine Lake Volcano Aquifers Associated with Geothermal Development, March 2014.