Friday, October 9, 2009

Shasta River Improves; Scott River still dewatered!

Some flow has returned to the Shasta River where irrigation with surface water diverted from streams officially ended on October 1st prompting California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) biologist Mark Pisano to tell reporters that he is “feeling more comfortable that the fish will be OK.”

This week flow near the mouth of the Shasta River had increased to about 100 cubic feet per second, up from a low of 4.5 cubic feet per second in mid August.

But the same increase in flow has not materialized on the Scott River where most surface irrigation under the Scott River Adjudication is supposed to end “on or about October 15th.” The Scott is currently running at about 9 cubic feet per second, up from a low of 4 cubic feet per second in late August.

This means that while Chinook salmon are moving up and spawning in the Shasta Valley and Shasta tributaries their brothers and sisters in the Scott River remain trapped near the river’s mouth far from their spawning grounds and unable to migrate due to low flows.

KlamBlog surveyed the Scott River Canyon on October 6th. The canyon emerges from the Scott River Valley to wind for 29 miles to its junction with the Klamath River. The upper 25 miles of the canyon were devoid of adult salmon. In the stretch of river below the village of Scott Bar fewer than 10 adult Chinook – singly and in scattered small groups - were observed trying to migrate. They appeared to be having a hard time as they attempted to ascend rocky and shallow riffles.

Two salmon (the splashes) attempting to ascend the Scott River below Scott Bar
October 6th, 2009

Closer to where the Scott joins the Klamath River, KlamBlog observed several hundred Chinook crowded into a small pool just above the Highway 96 bridge. Crowding and delayed migration encourages disease outbreaks and squanders the energy these fish need to finish their migration and spawn. KlamBlog observed one dead unspawned female below the crowded pool.

Some of the hundreds of Chinook Salmon holding in a small pool near the River's mouth
October 6, 2009

Meanwhile upriver in the Scott Valley most overhead irrigation has ended. The reason is economic. Following the crash of milk prices, the going price for alfalfa – a thirsty hay crop which in recent decades has replaced grain as the Scott Valley’s main non-bovine agricultural product – has crashed. Consequently alfalfa producers have decided not to irrigate for a fourth cutting this year. Fourth cuttings have become popular in Scott Valley since the advent of unregulated groundwater pumping around 1960. This allows producers to ignore the end of irrigation season and continue pumping and irrigating as long as they desire. Groundwater pumping is totally unregulated in Siskiyou County.

So why have the flows not rebounded on the Scott as they have on the Shasta?

The answer has a lot to do with the fact that the Shasta River is fed primarily by large volcanic springs. This means that as soon as irrigation ends the springs are free to run into the Shasta River. The Scott, on the other hand, is a snow melt stream with smaller, non-volcanic springs. In the Scott Valley extensive unregulated groundwater pumping for irrigation lowers the water table all summer long drying out virtually all the springs. When irrigation ends the groundwater must recharge before the springs – and the Scott River – begin to flow again. This means that if fall rains do not come in time and in quantity the Chinook will not make it to their spawning grounds. That is now the situation on the Scott even in years of average rainfall.

The Dewatered Scott River
October 6, 2009

The dewatering of the Scott River and its affect on Scott River Chinook salmon is expected to be a major argument in a petition being prepared to seek listing of Upper Klamath River Chinook salmon under federal and state endangered species laws.

Another reason why Scott River flows have not rebounded in spite of an end to overhead irrigation is that dozens of surface diversions in the Scott River Valley continue to run year around. Water right holders in Scott Valley have a right to 0.1 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water in order to water livestock throughout the year. But several of the major ditches – for example the main Kidder Creek and Etna Creek ditches - run full all year long. Most other irrigation ditches in Scott Valley also continue to run all winter but typically at 1 to 3 cubic feet per second as compared to 4 to 6 cfs in the main Kidder and Etna ditches. The main Etna and Kidder Ditches are controlled by the same ranching family.

Etna Creek Diversion Ditch - This diversion runs full year around

Irrigation Ditch in the Scott Valley on October 6, 2009
Irrigation via this ditch is supposed to end on October 1st

Readers may wonder why it is necessary to run a ditch at 4 to 6 or even 1 to 3 cfs in order to obtain a stockwater right of 0.1 cfs. The truth is that the practice is not necessary for livestock watering. The ranchers, however, like to keep their pastures soaked with water year around. They locate livestock watering at the bottom of their property so that the water has to run through – and sub-irrigate – all pastures above before arriving at the watering site.

Fifteen years ago the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) questioned this practice on Kidder Creek. CDFG asked the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to determine if the practice was legal. DWR said everything was OK. Rather than take the issue to the State Water Resources Board, CDFG decided not to rock the boat. Now CDFG managers want to grant these agricultural operations a permit to legalize their “take” of Coho salmon. Coho salmon are listed as "threatened" under both state and federal endangered species laws.

Out of season flood irrigation by some livestock producers in the Scott Valley has also been documented by fish advocates. Evidence of this illegal practice has been presented to the State Water Resources Board. However, that board - which is supposed to enforce water rights and prevent illegal diversions - has not taken action to stop the practice.

Out of Season (illegal) flood irrigation in the Scott River Valley
November 7th, 2005

Meanwhile the Siskiyou Resource Conservation District - which represents agricultural interests in the Scott River Basin and controls virtually all fish and watershed restoration funds spent in the Scott – has reacted angrily to a front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle which reported on the stranding of Chinook salmon on the lower Shasta and Scott Rivers.

In a long e-mail to Chronicle editors Siskiyou RCD manager Carolyn Pimentel listed what she claims are the good things that Scott Valley irrigation interests have done for salmon.

Pimentel then requested that the Chronicle publish “a follow-up article given the same front page attention as the original article with the attached photo and graph, and the following corrections and pertinent additional information.”

The Chronicle agreed to print a small factual correction: the Coho are listed as “threatened” and not “endangered” as the Chronicle article had stated. According to the Chronicle, Pimentel’s other points were irrelevant to the Chinook stranding story.

Apparently the governing board and managers of the Siskiyou Resource Conservation District believe that because they are doing allegedly “good things” for salmon they should be allowed to dewater the Scott River without complaint from anyone – least of all a big city newspaper.

This incident and numerous others have revealed that irrigation interests in the Scott Valley refuse to recognize that fish need water and not just screens on diversions and other projects which help irrigators as much or more than they help fish.

Among Pimentel’s claims is that this is a “critically dry” year in Northern California and so we should not expect enough water in the river to allow salmon to migrate and spawn.

KlamBlog has investigated that assertion. It turns out that it is only a “critically dry” year in Scott Valley and not elsewhere in the Klamath Basin where a “dry” but not “critically dry” year has been declared. As it turns out, the Siskiyou RCD has developed its own definitions of “dry”, “critically dry” and other year types. The way water year types are defined by the RCD favors irrigation interests over fish. Deceptions and half truths on the Scott just never seem to end!

Ten years ago fish advocates and fish biologists working as part of the Scott River CRMP developed a simple and practical system to evaluate whether fish and watershed restoration projects completed in the Scott River Basin had been implemented properly and were having the benefits claimed in funding proposals. However, the Siskiyou RCD refused to implement the evaluation system. Over the past 25 years the Siskiyou RCD has expended an estimated $25 million of taxpayer funds on “restoration” projects. The irrigator controlled group has never evaluated the effectiveness of even a single project. We know of no evaluations by the agencies which provide the funds either.

Fish advocates know how to evaluate the effectiveness of restoration. When salmon can’t make it to spawning grounds even in average rainfall years these advocates conclude thar restoration is not working. So what has all that money been spent on and why are Chinook and even Coho in some years not able to reach their spawning grounds in the Scott Valley and above?

That will be the topic in a future KlamBlog post. Stay tuned.

Dead unspawned female Chinook salmon near the mouth of Scott River
October 6, 2009


Joe G. said...

Felice, 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 Felice! Joe

Felice Pace said...

Dear Joe G,

The dewatering of the Scott began in the Gold Rush era (1850s) when miners dewatered the river with dams 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 I 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 (USGS data) by decade going back to the 40s when the flow gauge below the Scott Valley was established. His hand done graphs showed that flows have decreased decade by decade during the late summer and fall salmon migration season.

I believe this reality is illegal under several laws - most notably Fish & Game Code 5937, the Wild and Sxcenic 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. I believe they are morally - if not criminally - negligent.

As for the solution, I 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 Ag water rights given precedence over the FS right top flows are appropriative rights.

The judge erred in the Scott Valley Adjudication Decree and this needs to be corrected.

2. Groundwater 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.

3. We need a Klamath BASIN WIDE FLOW ASSESSMENT as recommended by the second independent science report from the National Research Council. That flow assessment would determine the flows actually needed for fish in the Scott 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 riparian based right as per California law.

On your last question: There is indeed another way to water cattle. As part of the Scott Valley CRMP I worked to establish an alternative stock watering system whereby we gave smaller wells and pumps (sometimes solar pumps with solar panels) to livestock owners so that they would not need to divert surface flow in winter. 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.