KlamBlog investigators have been in the Scott River watershed recently to check on the status of adult Chinook salmon. Regular readers will remember that Scott River Chinook salmon have been prevented from reaching their spawning grounds due to extremely low river flow. Our latest investigation was on November 4th; we have good and bad news to report.
The good news is that some Scott River irrigators voluntarily shut off their ditches to help the fish. The bad news is that some ditches are running nearly full even though – according to the Scott River Adjudication - irrigation was supposed to end “on or about” October 15th. Out of season irrigation is a regular practice in the Scott River Valley. Most of the Valley has no watermaster service and the California Department of Fish and Game refuses to enforce codes that regulate diversions. As a result, compliance with the Scott River Adjudication and California’s Fish & Game Codes is unregulated and voluntary.
One of the ditches that was shut off is the Scott Valley Irrigation District’s ditch – the largest diversion on the Scott River. Here’s a photo of that ditch on the 4th of November:
At the same time another major irrigation ditch – the Farmer’s Ditch below Callahan - was running at an estimated 3 to 5 cubic feet per second (cfs). Since the irrigation season had ended more than two weeks earlier, the Farmer’s Ditch was officially running to supply livestock water – a right of 0.1 cfs. However, this irrigation district has been known to practice out-of-season irrigation. Here’s a photo showing out-of-season irrigation of a cattle pasture from the Farmer’s Ditch in a recent prior year. The photo was taken in early November.
While the Farmer's Ditch was running full, most of the salmon were still stuck in the Scott River canyon where they were forced to spawn before reaching their natal streams in and above Scott Valley. A few battered salmon had made it as far as Fort Jones in the lower part of Scott Valley. Some of the best Chinook spawning grounds are located in tributaries above Fort Jones.
The Farmer’s Ditch is owned and operated by an irrigation district with a sordid record. In addition to regularly practicing out-of-season irrigation this district killed an estimated one hundred thousands young steelhead and salmon a few years back. The irrigators turned on Farmer’s Ditch and dewatered the Scott River below the diversion. The resulting fish kill was documented by the California Department of Fish & Game (CDFG) but was not disclosed to the public. KlamBlog learned about it from a whistleblower. That fish kill was covered up and no consequences were enforced. The kill reportedly included a few juvenile Coho salmon. It is unknown whether Coho take prohibitions were in effect at that time.
Water Trust or Public Trust
On the same day KlamBlog was investigating the situation on the Scott an article appeared in the Mt. Shasta Herald newspaper announcing that the Scott River Water Trust had taken action to help migrating salmon. According to the article, the Trust leased 400 acre feet of water from Scott Valley irrigators in early October. The Trust’s press release indicated that their action helped “reconnect” the dry reaches of the Scott River in Scott Valley. Maybe so; KlamBlog did not observe any portion of the Scott River which did not have some flow on November 4th. However, it was clear that the flows in the river were not sufficient to get the salmon to their preferred spawning grounds, that is, the streams in which they were born.
The Scott Valley Water Trust claims to be the first water trust in California. Those who care about salmon should hope that it is also the last water trust in the state. That’s because the Trust is using public money to lease water which – pursuant to Public Trust law – belongs to the fish and the River.
The prospect of becoming water brokers who sell water so that fish can survive is becoming more and more popular with irrigation interests. Another example in the Klamath River Basin is the misnamed Klamath Water Bank whereby the Bureau of Reclamation pays irrigators to deliver the water the Bureau is compelled by the Endangered Species Act to release to the Klamath River. The Bush Administration initiated the practice so that it could continue to provide full irrigation deliveries to the very irrigators from whom it purchased water to prevent jeopardy to Klamath River Coho salmon.
Think about that for a second. Even though the ESA and the Public Trust legally trump the rights of all other water users, the Bureau of Reclamation has diverted Klamath River water for irrigation and then bought water from the very irrigators to whom it supplied the water!
This practice has not ended with the Bush Administration. If the proposed Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) is legislated by Congress, government payments to irrigators in order to provide the flows fish need during drought years will be institutionalized. With more and more drought years predicted, this KBRA provision could become a big budget buster which over time will dwarf the $1 billion in subsidies which promoters of the controversial Water Deal want Congress to appropriate.
Did developers of the KBRA Water Deal defer development of the drought plan in order to hide the true cost of the Deal from Congress? It certainly looks that way.
Have Chinook salmon been extirpated from Shakleford-Mill Creek?
Returning to the Scott River, in early November KlamBlog also observed that Chinook salmon were not able to reach spawning grounds in the Shakleford-Mill Creek portion of Scott Valley. Shakleford-Mill is a large tributary system which enters the Scott River at the lower end of Scott Valley. The creeks are fed by streams originating in the Marble Mountain Wilderness. They should have good flows year around.
As late as the early 1970s this major Scott River tributary did have year-around flows and these flows supported prolific Chinook and a solid Coho run. Then a government-funded “soil conservation” project diked and channelized the lower portion of the creek in order to “reclaim” more land for irrigated farming. This was followed in the 1980s by massive logging and road building by a new industrial timber owner. Fruit Growers Supply – a Sunkist subsidiary – bought the industrial forests above Shakleford and Mill Creeks and accelerated logging and road building. This led to massive amounts of sediment being delivered to the creeks.
As a result of channelization and logging-generated sediment a large gravel delta has developed at the mouth of Shakleford Creek. Flow diminished by irrigation diversions can not break through this barrier and goes underground. As a result, adult Chinook can not access the creek in many years. Mill Creek – a major Shakleford Creek tributary – has been identified as possessing some of the best remaining Coho habitat in Scott Valley. But if major storms do not come soon, even Coho will not be able to spawn in Shakleford-Mill Creek this year.
The slide toward extinction
The Scott River conditions described above are not unique. From San Francisco Bay north to the Oregon border Chinook and Coho salmon are being extirpated from streams in a similar manner. Irresponsible logging clogs the streams with sediment; illegal water diversion and unrestrained groundwater pumping result in diminished flows; low flow barriers to migration develop. As salmon are prevented from reaching spawning grounds in more and more streams and in more and more years they eventually are extirpated from the streams. As more and more streams suffer this fate extinction happens.
This is the course we are on and there is no indication that as a society we are going to turn back.