Tribes, fishermen and conservationists demand action to restore flows in Scott and Shasta rivers

Snorkeling at Horn Lane Bridge on the Scott River. Photo courtesy of Save California Salmon.| 

By Dan Bacher @DanBacher

Scott River, CA - After a spring and summer marked by fish kills on the Klamath and Sacramento rivers and their tributaries, Save California Salmon and other fish conservation and environmental organizations recently joined Klamath River Tribes in asking the California State Water Resources Control Board to establish permanent instream flow requirements on two of the Klamath River’s largest tributaries, the Scott and Shasta rivers.

The groups sent the letters after multiple Klamath River Tribes, including the Yurok Tribe, Karuk Tribe and Quartz Valley Indian Rancheria, sent similar requests to make instream emergency flow requirements permanent, according to Regina Chichizola from Save California Salmon in a statement. 

The 12 groups signing a joint letter dated October 31 include the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Friends of the Shasta River, Climate Water Trust, Coast Action Group, Friends of the River, Native Fish Society, California Coastkeepers Alliance, the Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center, the Sacramento River Council and Sustainable Northwest.

The Golden State Salmon Association (GSSA) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) also sent separate letters making the same request, noted Chichizola.

On May 3, 2021, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Department) sent a letter and supporting materials to the California Water Board requesting establishment of a legally enforceable flow standard in the Scott and Shasta Rivers.

Then on September 29, 2021, the Karuk Tribe sent a letter to the Board supporting the Department’s request. The Tribe also provided additional information that underscores the imminent threat of extinction facing Southern Oregon Northern California Coho. 

Using the authority granted by Governor Newsom’s emergency drought declaration, the Water Board curtailed water diversions to alfalfa farms and ranches in the Scott and Shasta valleys for the first time in history. 

After diversions were curtailed, the rivers began flowing again and salmon were able to move upstream on their spawning journey.

“We support these requests from the Karuk Tribe and the Department,” the groups’ letter stated. “Most of our organizations have a long standing interest in the Klamath Basin and have worked with the Karuk and Yurok Tribes and Quartz Valley Indian Rancheria to ask the State Board, along with other state and federal agencies, to protect Scott and Shasta River fisheries and water quality.”

Both the Scott and Shasta Rivers are listed under the state’s 303(d) list for temperature and dissolved oxygen impairments caused by lack of flow in the rivers. The Shasta TMDL explicitly lists “lack of flow” as a cause for impairment and sets flow objectives, the letter stated.

“Groundwater compliance studies on the Scott River that were done in compliance with the 303(d) listings and TMDL show that groundwater pumping both inside and outside the zone of adjudication is the underlying reason for the Scott River flow impairments. Despite these facts, the Board delayed any action to protect these critical watersheds until this year’s emergency drought proclamation,” the letter noted.

“The Scott and Shasta Rivers are the last strongholds for wild Coho and Chinook salmon in the Klamath River but they go dry most years due to water diversions and groundwater pumping,” emphasized Chichizola. “This has had devastating impacts on the West Coast fishing industry and Tribal subsistence fishing, but up until now California has turned a blind eye.” 

Klamath River Coho are listed as threatened under the federal and state Endangered Species Acts (ESA), while Klamath Spring Chinook are listed under the California ESA and under consideration for federal listing. Fall Chinook numbers are falling as well, according to Chichizola. 

“In only a few decades, we have watched Scott and Shasta River salmon populations plummet due to excessive water diversions and mismanagement,” said Frankie Myers, the Yurok Tribe’s Vice Chairman. “For millennia, these streams supported a sizable portion of the Yurok Tribe’s subsistence harvest, but in the last six years we have not been able to harvest enough fish to feed our elders, let alone the tribe.”

“We ask the state water board to restore balance to the management of the Scott and Shasta before it’s too late.  The board has a legal and ethical obligation to expeditiously establish and enforce a flow schedule that supports the recovery of these critically important salmon runs,” noted Myers. 

Advocates of setting permanent instream flow standards say that the Scott and Shasta rivers dry up most years due to diversions and that local growers practice “disaster capitalism” by farming more alfalfa during droughts  when other farmers in the state have their diversions cut off, said Chichizola.

“Commercial fishing families all up and down the coast rely on Klamath salmon for their livelihoods,” said Glen Spain, NW Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), a major West Coast commercial fisheries trade group.  “Allowing too much water to be taken out of the Scott and Shasta Rivers, which once supported tens of thousands of adult salmon every year, cuts the economic heart out of many coastal communities.”   

He noted that commercial ocean salmon fisheries throughout Northern California had to be closed again this year, for the second year in a row, to protect the very weak stocks returning to the Klamath basin under what are called “weak stock management” constraints.   

In the Karuk Tribe letter, Tribal Chairman Buster Attebery pointed out, “Action is urgently needed to save Coho salmon, which is listed as threatened on the California and federal endangered species lists. Action is not only needed to protect endangered fish, but also dwindling populations of Fall Chinook salmon before they too are listed as endangered. Currently Fall Chinook populations are inadequate to meet the subsistence needs of tribes or support California’s commercial salmon fishing industry. Already, Spring Chinook have been extirpated from the Scott and Shasta Rivers.”

Likewise, in their joint letter, the 12 fish and environmental organizations concluded that “the science is in, minimum flow standards need to be set, and they need to be legally enforceable. If the Board does not take action, it will be letting the wild Coho salmon in these watersheds go extinct and failing to protect the public trust.”
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