The Scott River is dry and dying. Here’s a photo of the "river" on August 31st near the town of Fort Jones:
Unless there are large, sustained rainstorms soon, Chinook salmon which are ascending the Klamath River now will not be able to reach spawning grounds in most of the Scott River Basin – a major Klamath tributary. And unless there are big rainstorms over the next three months Coho salmon will also be trapped low down in Scott River Canyon and will not reach spawning grounds in the Scott River Valley and above.
Farmers and ranchers in the Scott River Valley are beginning to irrigate a third cutting of alfalfa. Rice – a new and thirsty crop - and cattle pastures are also being irrigated – some with brand new pumps and center pivot systems paid for by US taxpayers. If you ask them, these folks will acknowledge that the low Scott River flows are not good for salmon. Many will quickly add that the flows we see this year are natural given two years of below normal precipitation. Examination of historical flow, precipitation and snowpack data, however, as well as comparison with other nearby streams, does not back up that assertion.
Real time and historical flow data available on line from the California Department of Water Resources http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/stationInfo?station_id=SFJ indicate that, in fact, low late summer and fall flows are becoming more common in the Scott. Since the year 2000, for example, August Scott River flow has been below 1,000 acre feet in 5 out of 9 years (an acre foot is the amount of water sufficient to cover an acre of land in one foot of water).
This August 343 acre feet of water flowed past the government-operated flow gauge in the Scott River below the agriculture-dominated Scott Valley. This is the second lowest August flow for the Scott ever recorded; the lowest (339 acre feet) was in 2001. But the 1980s and 1990s had only three such years and from 1960 through 1980 the Scott’s August flow only once dipped below 1400 acre feet. That was the year of the famous 1977 California Drought. The Scott River’s August flow in 1977 was 632 acre feet.
These numbers tell a story of progressive river dewatering as more irrigation wells are drilled each year:
The Scott River accounts for the bulk of non-hatchery Klamath River Basin Coho production Along with the nearby Shasta Rive - which is experiencing flows nearly as bad as those in the Scott - the Scott River also produces a sizable chunk of the Klamath’s non-hatchery Chinook salmon. If Chinook salmon can not reach Shasta and Scott spawning grounds this year we will be looking at yet another closure of commercial and sport fishing up and down the coast of California and Southern Oregon three and four years from now. With the loss of that fishery comes big economic losses to coastal and river communities which depend on sport and commercial fishing business
Yet, in spite of past and looming salmon disasters, the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) – the agency responsible for protecting salmon and other Public Trust Resources in California - is planning to give those responsible for the dewatering of the Scott and Shasta Rivers a free pass to keep pumping more and more water and consequently to keep killing thousands of young salmon each and every year. CDFG has proposed providing agricultural operations in the Shasta and Scott with a permit to “take” Coho salmon. As proposed, the permit would provide legal coverage for all agricultural operations – including the unlimited pumping of groundwater.
But it is that very groundwater pumping which a recent peer reviewed scientific assessment found to be the prime cause of the Scott River’s dewatering. In their 2008 statistical study of 5 streams in the Klamath Mountains published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, Robert Van Kirk and Seth Naman reached the following conclusion:
“39% of the observed 10 Mm3 decline in July 1-October 22 discharge (flow) in the Scott River is explained by regional-scale climatic factors. The remainder of the decline is attributable to local factors, which include an increase in irrigation withdrawal from 48 to 103 Mm3/year since the 1950s” (emphasis added).
Other nearby streams have also experienced flow declines in recent decades. But no other stream has had declines anywhere near the magnitude Van Kirk and Naman found on the Scott. The full Van Kirk-Naman study is available on line.
For the past 25 years the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Bureau of Reclamation, California Department of Fish and Game and Forest Service have poured an estimated $25 million in taxpayer funds into the Scott River Basin in order to restore salmon. A similar amount has been spent in the Shasta River Basin. Yet throughout this period Chinook and Coho salmon stocks have declined while the dewatering of the Scott and Shasta Rivers progressed unabated. Most “restoration” in the Scott and Shasta River Basins has helped farmers; benefits to salmon have been minimal. Except for giving cover for continued dewatering, recovery and restoration of salmon in the Scott and Shasta has been a bust.
Managers working for the US Forest Service have been among those who have failed to take action to end the dewatering. In the Scott River Basin, the Forest Service holds a court adjudicated water right to flows in the Scott River below the agricultural Scott Valley which are sufficient to maintain salmon and other fish in “good condition”. Yet these managers have remained silent even though the adjudicated water right they hold is increasingly not being met in the late summer and fall – the very time when Chinook and Coho salmon are migrating up the Klamath in order to reach spawning streams. Irrigators and Forest Service officials will tell you this right is secondary to irrigators’ rights. That is the way the adjudication decree reads. But the Forest Service right is riparian in origin and in California riparian rights take precedence over other water rights. Yet Forest Service managers refuse to act to stop the dewatering of the Scott.
The situation on the Scott and Shasta Rivers is evidence of the deep seated corruption which infest those agencies whose duty it is to protecting our fish and wildlife. But the self-styled “defenders” of Klamath River Salmon are also not without blame. Environmentalists, fishing organizations and Klamath River Basin tribes have been silent and inactive for far too long as the dewatering of the Scott and Shasta Rivers has progressed.
Scott River flows continue to decline today even as irrigation continues. There are rumblings of discontent and rumors that action will be taken to stop and reverse the dewatering. So far, however, no action has been taken. Will the environmental, tribal and fishing communities which have been partners in championing living rivers and salmon recovery step up, join together and act to keep corrupt state and federal officials from allowing these rivers to die? Will those who have engaged in direct action for salmon in locations as far away as Scotland, Omaha, Sacramento and Salem also act to highlight the dewatering of the Scott and Shasta Rivers?