Sunday, October 11, 2009

Death of a Lady - the histroy of the Scott River's destruction

Recent posts on Scott River conditions and history have prompted several comments and questions. Below KlamBlog reprints one of the comments and responds to it. Following that is an article penned in the 1970s about the Scott River and its anadromous fishes by Jim Denny, the grandson of a prominent Scott River Valley pioneer family.

Joe G said:

Another well researched story. I also enjoy Chris Peters view of the agreement. For your next story, I wonder how long has it been since there were more natural flows in the Scott? Is it just the fourth crop of alfalfa, or are there other factors that have changed in the Scott Valley as well? This leads to just what would have to happen in the valley to insure proper flow? Would it mean taking only two crops of alfalfa in dry years? Is there another way to provide water to cattle other that these wasteful ditches(there must be!)? Are the tribes weighing in on the Scott issues?

Hope the predicted rainfall this week helps these fish get upstream. Meanwhile, I will stay tuned to Klamblog. Keep up the good work!


KlamBlog Responds:

Dear Joe G, The dewatering of the Scott River began in the Gold Rush era (1850s) when miners dewatered the river with dams to access the dewatered bed and to wash soil for gold. It let up when the Gold Rush ebbed but the settlers who had come to raise cattle and grain to feed the miners diverted the river's flow and that of tributaries.

Extensive pumping of groundwater for irrigation began about 1960 and has increased steadily since then - especially in the late 70s and 80s. For example, in the 50s the entire Lower Moffett Creek Watershed was dry farmed (this is the area along both sides of State Route 3 between the town of Fort Jones and Forest Mountain (the pass to Yreka). Today that entire area is irrigated; most is in alfalfa. This history is why we speak of the "progressive dewatering" of the Scott River.

Ken Maurer who was a member of the Scott River CRMP and Marble Mountain Audubon mapped late summer and fall flows in the Scott River by decade going back to the 40s when the flow gauge below the Scott River Valley was established (USGS data). His hand drawn graphs showed that flows have decreased decade by decade since the 1940s.

We believe this reality is illegal under several laws - most notably Fish & Game Code 5937, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (lower Scott River is a federal WSR designated because salmon were the rivers #1 "outstanding and remarkable value") and the Mono Lake Decision (Public Trust). The responsible state and federal officials know this but they don't have the guts to do anything about it. KlamBlog believes they are morally - if not criminally - negligent.

As for the solution, we believe these are the elements:

1. The Forest Service (or anyone acting in the public interest) should challenge the Scott River Adjudication. The FS right to flows in the river is not being met even in average rainfall years. But the FS water right has a riparian basis and in California riparian rights have precedence over rights based on appropriation. Many of the Scott Valley Agricultural water rights - currently given precedence over the FS riparian right - are appropriative rights. The judge erred in the Scott Valley Adjudication Decree and this needs to be corrected.

2. The adjudication judge also erred in how he defined groundwater interconnected to surface flow. In many instances the line defining interconnected groundwater in the adjudication is located right next to the river. This in spite of scientific evidence (USGS and California DWR) that in the Scott River Valley groundwater is "broadly interconnected" to surface flow. This drawing of the line was recommended by California Department of Water Resources. We suspect corruption played a part. In any case this error in the Scott River Adjudication Decree needs to be corrected.

3. All groundwater pumping must be regulated otherwise those who loose surface rights will just switch to groundwater. Currently Siskiyou County and the state refuse to regulate groundwater even though there is clear scientific evidence from USGS and California DWR that groundwater is broadly connected to surface flow via springs which dry up when the water table is lowered too much.The groundwater study mandated by the Scott River TMDL has been given over to Siskiyou County. The study is well behind schedule already and will, in my opinion, never be completed by Siskiyou County unless there is a court order telling them to complete it by date certain.

4. We need a BASIN WIDE FLOW ASSESSMENT for the Klamath River Basin as recommended by the second independent science report on the Klamath from the National Research Council. That flow assessment would determine the flows actually needed for fish in the Scott River and major tributaries and throughout the Klamath River Basin based on up-to-date scientific methods. The results would then go to the adjudication judge with a request to adjust the Forest Service's riparian-based river flow water right as per California law.

On your next question, there is indeed another way to water cattle. As part of the Scott Valley CRMP KlamBlog's principle author worked to establish an alternative stock watering system whereby the Siskiyou RCD gave smaller pumps (sometimes solar pumps with solar panels) to livestock owners so that they would not need to divert surface flow in winter in order to water livestock nor turn on the expensive irrigation pumps. Unfortunately the Siskiyou RCD did not require that those receiving these taxpayer funded systems agree not to divert outside irrigation season. As a result most of these livestock producers use the wells but still divert and still allow their cattle access to the river. It is a sad tale colored by corruption; but there it is.

A steer watering in Big Slough in the Scott River Valley in winter.
Note the hundreds of cattle in the background and the cattle exclusion fence which has been taken down.


Below you will find an article titled “Death of a Lady” about the Scott River. This article was written in the early 1970s for fishermen by Jim Denny, now long deceased. Jim was an avid steelhead fisherman and a public school teacher. He was also the direct descendant of Scott Valley pioneers.

KlamBlog doesn’t know if the article was ever published. We do know that irrigation interests in the Scott River Valley would rather that it be forgotten. Jim’s daughter, Mary Roehrick Denny, is a member of the Scott River Watershed Council – a group which insists on providing cover for those who are illegally dewatering the Scott. This is being done in the name of "collaboration" and “win-win”. The Scott River and its salmon, however, continue to loose.

You also ask "Are the tribes weighing in on the Scott issues?" The answer is "yes" and "no". The Quartz Valley Indian Reservation (QVIR) has been documenting Coho "take" which results from dewatering of Scott River Valley streams. It does not appear that the "responsible agencies" are going to do anything with that data.

The Yurok Tribe and Karuk Tribe agreed not to study flow needs in the Shasta and Scott River as part of the flow assessment of the Klamath River which began in the late 1990s. That decision prompted the National Research Council to state that the Klamath River is being treated "like the Upper Basin and a gutter to the sea."

These two tribes - and all other members of the deal-making Klamath Settlement Group - agreed not to include the Shasta and Scott in the proposed Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA). The word is that the California Department of Fish and Game insisted that if the Shasta and Scott were included they would quit the negotiations. The tribes, the fishing groups and the environmental groups - including the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens' Associations, Cal Trout and Trout Unlimited - did not call CDFG's bluff.

Based on the above facts, I think it is likely that the QVIR will continue to advocate for the Scott River and its salmon and that the Yurok and Karuk tribal governments will continue to take no meaningful action to restore Scott River flows.


The article below, written by Jim Denny for a fishing magazine in the mid 1970s, is about California’s Scott River, a major tributary of the Klamath River.

Descended from a pioneer Scott River Valley family, Jim Denny was a teacher, fisherman and historian. The article gives an historical perspective on salmon and steelhead fisheries in the Scott River Valley. The “silvers” referred to in the article are Spring Chinook salmon, this being the local name for Spring Chinook.

The Death of a Lady
By Jim Denny

In the world of the fisherman, a stream is always of the feminine gender. This situation exists because the only part of his life more important to him than fishing is his wife. The lady I am going to tell you about lives in Scott Valley. She is called Scott River.

The first white person fortunate enough to see this beauty with his own eyes was Thomas McKay, who came through the area for the Hudson Bay Company in about 1830. McKay must have been taken by our lady’s charms, for in 1836, ,he returned with Stephen Meek to trap beaver. In one month they secured 1800 pelts. McKay and Meek called the home of our lady Beaver Valley.

Had it not been for the discovery of gold by John Scott in July or August of 1850, our lady most likely would have been named Beaver. Let’s picture, fellow fisherman, what McKay and Meek actually viewed in the valley they called Beaver.

It is 1836. The valley is thirty-five miles long, five to seven miles wide, with an almost completely level floor. The north end of the valley is a solid mass of beaver ponds and willows. The south end is grassy meadows, oak, pine, poplar, cottonwood, birch, alders, and willows. The mountains around the valley are forested in pine, fir and cedars. Besides the fur-bearing animals in the valley, quail, grouse, geese, ducks and deer are everywhere.

In 1855, the commanding officer at Fort Jones used to detail two soldiers to shoot ducks for two hours. In this length of time, they killed enough ducks to last the garrison of fifty men a week. This vale of beauty, then, is the home of our heroine, Scott River.

Imagine you are standing on a hill overlooking her, back in 1836. it is a sight to speed your heart, raise your blood pressure and make you want to go fishing right now. The long, meandering curves, sparkling riffles – all together they combine to form the premier river in the state of California.

It is granted that the home of our lady was a house of the utmost splendor and grandeur in 1836. What, then, clogged the sluice boxes, got in the way in the irrigation ditches, smelled up the fields when they died, and on top of that, killed half the dogs. I remember when my Dad wanted smoked steelhead, he merely went out into the fields where he was irrigating, picked up twenty to thirty downstreamers, and took them to the smokehouse.

This was in March and April. In June and July, the salmon smolts came down the ditch in such numbers that the ground was white, as they lay in death after the water was turned off. Calvin Ball used to drive his spring wagon right into French Creek. It then took him all of thirty minutes to pitchfork in a load of spawning silvers. Then he fed them to the pigs.

Most of the ranchers also liked salted steelhead. Jack Timons told me they used to take a spring wagon, two fifty-gallon barrels, one man with a pine torch, and two men with spears, and also go to French Creek, only at night. At the most, it took them two hours to fill the barrels with de-headed, cleaned, spawning steelhead. That gave them enough salted steelhead to last the whole year. This size crew could spear two months on French Creek today and not cover the bottom of one barrel.

Bill Burcell tells me the spring run of steelhead in Etna Creek was so great you couldn’t see the bottom of the creek for their green backs. Today it’s a problem to see one fish.

When the Miles family wanted fish, they took silvers from Miners Creek. Bill and Albert went with their Dad. Each had a spear. Their Dad would point out which fish to spear. Albert says it took them an hour to get enough selected salmon to last a year. Today the number of silver salmon in Miners Creek is zero.[1]

Yes, our lady’s arteries and veins were glutted with fish. The silvers came from September 20 to the first of November. The kings came from October 1 to December 15. The steelhead started October 1 and ended June 1. The German brown ran in Shackleford Creek in April and May. On top of all these anadromous fish, Scott River had an extremely large population of native rainbow trout. The river was full of three to five-pound trout that were broad, deep and extremely red-meated. I remember one five-pounder I caught that had twenty-six crawfish in its stomach, and was only twenty-one inches in length.

The tributaries all had large populations of their own sub-species of rainbows. Kidder Creek had Dolly Vardon in its upper reaches. Today, Fish and Game says five-thousand steelhead, one-thousand silvers, and eight-thousand kings come into Scott River. No fish counts were made one-hundred and fifty years ago, but my estimates are as follows: two-million steelhead, three-hundred and fifty-thousand silvers, and fifty-thousand kings. I do not think all these fish succeeded in spawning. I do think that many of the fish spawned and destroyed the redds of previous spawners. I question Fish and Game’s figures on steelhead. I suggest that the present run is twenty-thousand. I think they are accurate on the kings and high on silvers.

For all practical purposes, the native rainbows and the silver salmon run are gone. Why then has our magnificent, bounteous lady become a slattern in complete disarray? The answer is simple. The white settlers raped, ravished, beat, punished and choked our lady to within an inch of her life. That she even breathes is a miracle. I estimate that Scott Valley proper is producing one percent of the fish it did one-hundred and fifty years ago. Truly, our lady is a monument to the white man’s folly and shortsightedness.

The Indians took all the fish they needed. Their wants and methods were in harmony with nature. The early settlers, in their quest for profit, whether through mining, farming, or logging, completely disregarded the effects of their actions on their environment. Let’s spell out the actions as they occurred, that changed our lady from the “Helen of Troy” of her time, to the guttersnipe she is today.

The trappers did not harm Scott River, so let’s start with the miners. Every stream in Scott Valley that had gold was placer mined in its lower reaches. This destroyed the holes, destroyed the vegetation, and caused a lot of the stream flow to run underground. The extra silt was also damaging to the main river. Some time around 1880, a rock barrier was put in Scott River Canyon to help mining. This barrier became known as Kleaver Falls. From the time it was put in until the 1955 flood washed it out, it blocked king salmon from their main spawning areas in the Valley.

After the miners took their best punches at our lady, the farmers took over, and unfortunately, they are still at it. Before I detail the traumatic effect farming had on the fish, let me explain the geography of the Valley. Scott Valley runs from south to north. The west side, or wet side, has mountains averaging seventy-five hundred feet. The east side, or dry side, has mountains averaging forty-five hundred feet. When Meek and McKay first viewed Scott Valley, there were approximately four-hundred and sixty-two miles of stream habitat for anadromous fish. Two-hundred and sixty-five miles of these streams were on the east side of the Valley. They were the ideal habitat for silver salmon and steelhead, both as spawning areas and nursery. They produced at least seventy-five percent of the silver salmon and steelhead clogging the veins of our fair lady.

Let’s check what one-hundred years of farming did to this great fishery. The farmers first drained all the beaver ponds. This eliminated hundreds of acres of nursery area for young salmonids, as well as habitat for large native rainbows. Next, the farmers cleared all the trees and other vegetation from the land, including the east side gulches. The rainfall was originally adequate. Ditches usually were not necessary. With the clearing of trees and vegetation, the rainfall on the east side of Scott Valley has dropped fifteen inches in the last one-hundred years.

Of the twenty-two streams producing fish on the east side of the Valley one-hundred years ago, only five have any fish at all. McConaughy Gulch is a typical example. It supported, before 1890, ten dairy ranches. They all had enough water, and there was a total of thirty miles of fish habitat. Today the gulch supports no operating ranches. It has no fish habitat.

With the declining rainfall, the farmers put in more and more ditches. Today there are over two-hundred irrigation ditches in Scott Valley, most of which aren’t screened, bleeding the precious fish from the veins and arteries of our once proud queen. Sprinkler irrigation is now the vogue. It is more efficient. Less water irrigates more land. This should help the fish. Not so for our forlorn lady. So many wells have been put in on the valley floor of the lower part of Scott Valley, that they are lowering the underground rivers in the Valley. The river is almost dry in the areas that always had enough water in the past. So much for the farmers.

In 1934, politics reared its ugly head in the form of the WPA. For those of you too young to know, it was a make-work program. The intentions were good. The results were a disaster. They took our stumbling enchantress and gave her the permanent strip-tease treatment. They started at Callahan, went right down the river, up and down the tributaries, and took out all the vegetation. As if this weren’t enough, in 1937, mining reared its ugly head again in the form of the Yuba Dredging Company. Between 1937 and 1951, they completely destroyed four miles of Scott River, leaving behind a legacy of rocks and silt that filled all the holes down river, killed most of the aquatic life, and destroyed hundreds of acres of farm land. The damage done to the valley and river is a thousand times greater than the money derived from the dredging.

The next sledge hammer punch to the solar plexus of our staggering lady, was the biggest housing boom the United States has ever known, between 1945 and 1956. the forests of Scott Valley were intensively logged, in a disastrous manner, for those eleven years. Brush grows where there were trees, silt is rampant where there was none, and the fall and spring rainfall has fallen off even more.

Our lady is lying in her sick bed. Her condition, to say the least, is precarious. In her unprotected state, the floods of 1955, 1964, and 1973 have left her on the brink of death. Hail to the once proud queen of the west!


The death of the Scott River is not an unusual circumstance. Almost all the steelhead rivers of the north coast of California have suffered the same fate. The loss to the economic vitality of the pacific slope due to the decline of anadromous fish is in the billions of dollars. For every fish not there, some sportsman can’t fish and doesn’t buy any tackle, or spend any money on transportation, lodging and meals. Somebody who wants fresh salmon in a butcher shop can’t buy it, because the commercial fisherman had to quit fishing. It is a never-ending chain reaction.

The point is: Do you want to get off your duff and do something, or are you willing to let fishing for anadromous fish become a folk tale? In recent years, a few Coho salmon have been documented in Miners Creek, particularly in a section where the landowner has allowed the riparian area to reforest.

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