Friday, August 27, 2010

Report from the Scott River – Chinook Salmon and Property Rights Fanatics are doing well this year!

Last week KlamBlog was on the Scott River checking out conditions in the river and investigating what is being done to clean-up the Scott now that we have water quality clean-up plans adopted for that river as well as the Shasta and Klamath Rivers. For those who may not know, the Scott is major Klamath River tributary.

Along with the nearby Shasta River, Scott River both produced the bulk of Klamath River Chinook and Coho Salmon and Pacific Lamprey as recently as the 1960s. While they continue to produce most of the Klamath River's wild Chinook Salmon, Chinook production is a shadow of what it once was. Coho and Lamprey have declined precipitously in the two sub-basins to the point that they are now considered to be at high risk of extinction/extirpation.

The culprits in the decline of Scott River Salmon and Lamprey are well known through more than 30 years of study and assessment. Excessive nutrient loading (almost all from livestock and return irrigation flows), lethally high water temperature and especially the dewatering of large amounts of Salmon and Lamprey habitat are driving these fish to extinction/extirpation.

Poor water quality and severely reduced flows from the Scott and Shasta Rivers have also played a major role in promoting epidemic levels of fish disease in the Klamath River proper. Data from out-migrant fish traps indicates that many of the salmon produced in the Klamath River Basin die from these fish diseases before they can reach the Pacific Ocean. Mortality happens every year but increases in dryer years when flows from the Scott and Shasta Rivers approach zero. In those years virtually all the cold, clean water produced in national forest wilderness areas above these valleys is diverted, pumped and consumed by irrigation interests.    

To summarize, the progressive extirpation of Coho Salmon, Spring Chinook Salmon and Pacific Lamprey are well documented. The extinction process is in an advanced stage – especially on the Scott and Shasta Rivers. Unfortunately, we as a society appear to lack the will to reverse the slide toward extinction. Instead we watch it happen like voyeurs at a pornographic movie.

That is the for the good news:

This year, as a result of heavy snowpack and unusual late spring storms, fish habitat in the Scott River Canyon (lower third of the sub-basin) is in the best condition we’ve seen over the past 30 years. We dove at Gold Flat and near Kelsey and Canyon Creeks. The flows are good, water temperature is low and there are lots of juvenile salmon and steelhead present and well distributed. As a consequence, the Scott River Canyon will produce a large number of Salmon this year. Because water quality is also relatively good  in the Klamath River as well, disease rates should be lower and many of the young salmon rearing in the Scott should make it to the Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately the good flows and water quality in Scott River Canyon do not extend to the agricultural valley that occupies the middle third of the Scott River Basin. In spite of the fact that there was still snow pack in the mountains and lots of high quality water being delivered to Scott Valley from the national forest wilderness areas above, flows out of the Scott Valley are low. Flow readings at the US Geological Service’s gauge below Scott Valley showed flows of about 30 cubic feet per second last week. That is about half the 68 year average flows for this time of year.

While 30 CFS is a fraction of what would be flowing in the Scott if groundwater pumping had not doubled since the 1960s, KlamBlog estimates that the flows observed at the gauge are actually closer to 10 cfs than to the 30 CFS reported by USGS. The discrepancy is likely the result of failure by the responsible government agency to recalibrate the gauge after large winter and spring storms significantly shifted the bed of Scott River. KlamBlog has alerted the USGS to the problem but the "near real-time" readings for the Scott River continue to show an erroneous 30 CFS.   

Most of the Scott River Basin habitat for juvenile Lamprey is in the low gradient portions of the river that occur in and just below Scott Valley. But most streams in the Valley are once again completely dry this summer. Younger folks living in the Valley have come to think of this dewatered condition as normal. But the old timers know that this is not the way it was. It is also not the way it would be now if applicable laws were enforced and water was managed responsibly.

Lamprey juveniles spend up to 7 years in river bottom sediments. When these streambeds are dewatered by excessive irrigation pumping and stream diversion, the young Lamprey are wiped out. Some fisheries biologists believe that, among all the Klamath’s anadromous fish, Klamath Lamprey are at highest risk of extinction. The primary cause is dewatering of their Scott River Valley juvenile habitat as a result of unregulated irrigation withdrawal.

The demise of the Lamprey has real world consequences. In the not-to-distant days when the Scott River had good flows during June, Native folks living in the Scott River Basin would go down to the riffles with a sock on one hand and a burlap sack in the other hand. They would pick up migrating lamprey with the socked hand and put them into the burlap sack. Lamprey once provided a high protein food source for Native people throughout the Klamath River Basin.

When KlamBlog was in the Scott Valley last week the center pivot irrigation systems which have sprouted around the Valley in recent years were in full operation in the middle of the day. Air temperature was about 100 degrees. Because they are rated by engineers as more efficient as compared to wheel line and flood irrigation, irrigation interests maintain that these center pivot systems use less water to irrigate the same amount of crop or forage land. In 2002 that reasoning persuaded Congress to provide $50 million dollars from taxpayers to buy and install these more efficient irrigation systems for Ag folks in the Klamath River Basin. The promise was that this would mean more water for fish.

But the increased flows never materialized. We wonder whether the center pivot systems - which put out a fine mist rather than a spray of water drops - save water when they are run in the middle of a hot, summer day. Does enhanced evaporation wipe out the water savings? KlamBlog has sent the Natural Resource Conservation Service a query on the question and will report if they respond. You can contact them too; here’s contact information for Yreka NRCS office chief Jim Patterson:
               215 Executive Court, Suite A, Yreka, CA 96097 
     , (530) 842-6123

One of our questions for NRCS is why - in exchange for government funding for center pivots - those receiving them were not required to agree to irrigate only during the evening and nighttime hours. We suspect that just that simple change in irrigation practices would cut irrigation water use significantly and consequently keep more water in the Scott River.

Government Funded Water Waste in the Scott River Valley

Irrigating in the middle of hot summer days is only one aspect of government funded water waste in the Scott River Valley. But several organizations are hard at work trying to persuade the public that the irrigators who dewater the river and irrigate in the middle of very hot summer days really care about salmon. The Scott River Water Trust is one such organization. It has issued press releases claiming that Scott River irrigators are working hard to provide for Scott River Salmon.

But if these irrigators really care about fish why don’t they wait until the cool of evening to turn on their irrigation pumps? How much water could be saved for fish and flows if this simple practice were followed? Instead the Scott Valley Water Trust pays irrigation interests for the water it puts into Scott River Basin streams. Is irrigator concern for fish in the Scott River Valley just a matter of money? Those middle of the day misters unnecessarily evaporating precious water provides the real answer.

KlamBlog also believe it is bad policy and unfair to taxpayers to pay for water to which the fish have a first right under the Public Trust Doctrine and California Water Law. The approach of the Scott River Water Trust -leasing water to provide minimum or marginally better conditions for salmon - undermines the Public Trust Doctrine.

According to the Water Trust's web site, the Scott River Watershed Council (SRWC) is one of the Trusts two “partners”.  In a recent commentary by Council Chairperson Marilyn Seward,  published in the Scott Valley View (the Siskiyou Daily News’ new weekly publication), the Council disclosed its core purpose and function: Here’s part of what Seward wrote about the SRWC:

          The most recent project has involved laying the groundwork for the creation of a Scott Valley Groundwater Advisory Committee, which would work with the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors (in an advisory capacity only) to create a plan which would continue to keep groundwater protection and management under county jurisdiction..……In recent years, several hard-working local groups and the farmers/ranchers themselves have been criticized by state and federal agencies because they “aren’t doing anything.” The Strategic Action Plan tells a different story, but it has become obvious that this information isn’t being disseminated to these critical groups, to county/state/federal groups who partner with Scott Valley ranchers in dozens of conservation/restoration projects, even to Scott Valley citizens themselves. A chief objective of the Scott River Watershed Council will be to rectify this oversight.

In other words, the newly reorganized Scott River Watershed Council’s function will be to promote the fiction that it is OK for Scott Valley irrigation interests to progressively dewater the Scott River thereby driving Coho Salmon and Pacific Lamprey to extinction in the watershed because these folks are taking federal money to do feel-good projects which benefit them more than they benefit fish. Good luck Marilyn - convincing folks that fish can do fine without water or a living river is going to be a hard sell!

In recent decades, Watershed Councils have been formed by diverse stakeholders to help salmon and steelhead survive by cleaning-up pollution and restoring adequate flows. The Scott River Watershed Council is a different animal entirely. By public admission of its chairperson, its mission is “local control”. Like the Water Trust's other "partner" - Siskiyou Resource Conservation District - the Scott River Watershed Council’s function is to keep taxpayer funds flowing to farmers and ranchers while obscuring the fact that these same farmers and ranchers are driving Coho Salmon and Pacific Lamprey to extinction in the sub-basin. 

The reorganization of the Scott River Watershed Council so that it is a more effective propaganda tool for irrigation interests is part of a drive by Siskiyou County property rights fanatics – led by the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors – to gear up for what they are projecting as a new “water war” focused on groundwater. Siskiyou County’s water war hysteria is in large part a response to a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Law Foundation and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) challenging groundwater exploitation in the Scott River Valley. But that lawsuit could take 30 years to complete. Water war hysteria may be more geared to securing funds from right wing foundations than a genuine need to counter an immanent threat of water reallocation.

And, as if it does not already have a sufficient number of organizations ranting about property rights, Siskiyou County has spawned yet another. Scott Valley Protect Our Water – or “POW” is conducting a “Restore Honor Water Rally” at the Siskiyou Fairgrounds on August 28th. There will likely to be plenty of out-of-county lawyers and consultants attending; it will be interesting to see how many Siskiyou citizens show up.

POW joins SOSS, the Siskiyou Farm Bureau, Siskiyou RCD, the Scott Valley Watershed Council as organization whose self-appointed mission is to prevent enforcement within the county of those provisions of the California Constitution which are supposed to guarantee fish the water they need to survive and to assure that the public interest in water is not infringed in the course of meeting private needs. It appears that Siskiyou County’s property rights fanatics each need their own organization!  They must all be leaders and probably desperate for a few followers.

POW is also taking credit for placing “dam removal” on the November ballot in Siskiyou County. KlamBlog suspects the property rights fanatics may be surprised when those votes are counted.

The recognition that those who embrace “restoration” in the Scott River Basin are ripping off the taxpayers for private benefit while driving the very species they are being funded to restore to extinction has finally begun to sink in with those downstream as well as with those who control restoration funding purse strings. It is just a shame that it has taken so many agency and elected officials 30 years to realize what is really going on up on the Scott. Let's hope that recognition, while belated, has come in time to prevent Coho Salmon and Pacific Lamprey from being driven to extinction in the Scott River Basin.

Federal and state agencies which continue to fund these cynical and wasteful operations should be taken to task. If we are going to prevent the looming extinction of Klamath Coho and Lamprey we can’t afford to waste more scarce restoration funds on efforts which on balance hurt the very species they are intended to restore.    

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