Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cal Fish and Game goes to the Scott River Valley...with its hand out

Officials from the California Department of Fish and Game have scheduled a meeting next Tuesday evening at Fort Jones in Siskiyou County. At that meeting CDFG officials will ask Scott River Valley irrigators to please let some water past the dams and diversions they operate so that young Coho and Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout will not be stranded and die. Even in this wet year - one of the best water years on record - irrigators who divert streams and also pump groundwater from numerous wells near the river are collectively dewatering key Scott River tributaries. In average and dry years, Chinook and Coho salmon have trouble accessing any of their spawning grounds in or above the 30 mile long agricultural Scott River Valley.

The dewatered Scott River near Fort Jones, October 2, 2009
The irony is that the State of California has the right – clearly stated in its constitution - to flows below those dams and diversions that are adequate for fish.  As a matter of policy, however, CDFG managers have decided that the State’s right to keep rivers alive should not be exercised in the Scott River Valley….or in the Shasta River Valley….or in just about any other stream in California.  The decision to allow irrigators to dewater streams below dams and diversions is arguably an abrogation of CDFG managers’ sworn duty. It is also one key reason Klamath River Coho – and so many other salmon stocks in California - remain on the brink of extinction.

But don’t take KlamBlog's word for it. Read the Fish and Game Code section 5937 which is part of California’s Constitution. And then read the SF Chronicle article at this link which is also reprinted below. The Chronicle report by veteran reporters Glen Martin and Tom Steinstra details CDFG’s (mis)management policy on the Scott and Shasta Rivers. These two Klamath River tributaries should be the production breadbasket for Klamath River Salmon, but they have instead become salmon basket cases. Diversion of salmon restoration funds to benefit irrigators and willful refusal of government officials to champion the species they are sworn to protect are key reasons the Scott River and its salmon are dying.

Twenty-eight years ago when the famous Mono Lake Decision issued from California’s Supreme Court, salmon advocates thought the future would be different. Armed with a decision strongly affirming the ancient Public Trust Doctrine, salmon folks expected the California Department of Fish & Game to use the Mono Lake precedent to keep irrigation interests from dewatering our salmon streams.

We have been bitterly disappointed.  Instead of using the Public Trust Doctrine to protect salmon streams, the California Department of Fish & Game is standing by while irrigation interests dewater our streams and destroy the salmon. The best this corrupt department can muster is to politely request that irrigators let a little water pass the dams and diversions so that the streams don’t completely dry up.

It is unlikely Scott River Valley irrigators will budge; why should they when CDFG has for so long been a paper tiger threatening regulatory action but never taking a violation there to court? Even when an irrigator killed hundreds of thousands of salmon and steelhead a few years back by dewatering a section of the Upper Scott River, CDFG did not prosecute.

Bogus restoration project on the Scott River. This is where hundreds of thousands of fish died a few years back when the Farmer's Irrigation Ditch was turned on dewatering the River. 

There is, however, new leadership in Sacramento. In the governor’s office; down the street at the Resources Agency and across the street at the Department of Fish & Game there are new leaders who are to this point untainted by the deep-rooted malfeasance which has infected CDFG management for far too long.

Governor Brown, Resource Secretary Laird and CDFG Director McCamman have an opportunity to make a new start. They should begin with the Klamath. For the sake of Klamath River Salmon, they should sweep the stables clean - providing new leadership and new policy direction at the Northern Regional Office.

If they are going to survive, Klamath River Salmon need CDFG managers who will enforce the laws which should protect the Scott and Shasta Rivers from dewatering.  Politely asking irrigators who for years have been dewatering rivers to please change course will not work; when laws are being systematically and intentionally disregarded, law enforcement is the only effective way forward. 

An Irrigation Ditch in the Scott River Valley on December 25, 2009. Several Scott River ranchers run diversion ditches full year around. The practice is illegal but CDFG and State Watermasters refuse to end the practice .                                                     

Young fish die as water laws go unenforced: Ranchers' cooperation threatened

SF Chronicle
Glen Martin, Tom Stienstra, Chronicle Staff Writers
Friday, June 22, 2001

Irrigation by ranchers is decimating salmon and steelhead populations on California's second biggest river system, and Department of Fish and Game officials acknowledge they are not implementing a tough state law that could stop the diversions.

Ranchers have diverted most of the flow of the Scott and Shasta Rivers in Siskiyou County to irrigate alfalfa fields and pastures, leaving thousands of young salmon and steelhead without enough water and facing imminent death.

State game wardens generally are disposed to citing the diverters under Fish and Game Code 5937, which requires dam owners to maintain water in state streambeds sufficient to keep fish healthy.

But agency officials say they are being told not to cite offenders out of concern that cooperative restoration projects between the state and ranchers on the Scott and Shasta Rivers would end instantly if the law were enforced.

The controversy points out difficulties with cooperative programs between government agencies and private parties.

Though such agreements can help resolve thorny environmental problems, they may also inhibit agencies from cracking down on private sector partners.

Warden Renie Cleland said he was told to back off from citing ranchers on the Scott and Shasta rivers.

"This has gone all the way to Sacramento," said Cleland. "It's extremely politically sensitive. I was told to take no enforcement action on it. These fish are dying. We've got five or six thousand steelhead trout dead on the Scott, and (dead juvenile steelhead) everywhere on the Shasta."


The Scott and Shasta are major tributaries of the Klamath River, which is second only to the Sacramento River in its dimensions and the number of fish it supports.

The Klamath and its tributaries once supported hundreds of thousands of chinook salmon, coho salmon and steelhead trout. Their numbers began declining in the mid-20th century from dams, agricultural irrigation and timber harvesting. By the mid-1980s, only a few thousand fish were left -- mostly on the Scott and Shasta.

During the past decade, efforts to screen agricultural pump intakes, reduce soil erosion, restore riparian forests and transport fish trapped in "dewatered" streambeds have bolstered the fish populations somewhat.


But conflict between environmentalists and ranchers over diversions has simmered for years. Ranchers exercising water rights adjudicated in the 1930s typically lower the rivers through irrigation during the summer.

This year, a severe local drought has greatly increased the degree of the problem. The Scott has been sucked dry, and the Shasta reduced to a trickle at its juncture with the Klamath.

Temperatures in the river have reached or exceeded the level considered lethal for salmon species, which favor cold water. Thousands of fish have died, and thousands of others face imminent death, making the pumping a clear violation of Code 5937.

"Everything has died," said Fish and Game Captain Chuck Konvalin of the Scott River. "The system has been dried up."

Konvalin, who heads a team of wardens who operate in the north state, says their superiors are reigning them in.

"This thing is out of whack," said Konvalin. "I get my orders."

Gary Stacey, a fisheries program director for Fish and Game who oversees projects in the Klamath area, said enforcing Code 5937 would "slam the door" on meaningful restoration programs along the Scott and Shasta, which cost $25 million a year.

"All our current programs depend on landowner cooperation," he said. "That would all stop immediately if we pulled the trigger. And the process involved in filing and prosecuting a case like this could take years -- years the fish don't have.

"By taking strong law enforcement action, we could simply be assuring that the (fish) populations would wink out."


Ranchers confirm they would scrap all cooperative ventures with the state if they were cited by game wardens, and say they are guaranteed diversion rights by court rulings made decades ago.

Gary Black, who diverts Scott River water to irrigate alfalfa and wheat on his 240-acre farm, said ranchers would respond to voluntary incentives to improve fish populations but would resist government fiat.

"We're looking for win-win situations," said Black, who helps direct a local resource conservation district that promotes fish-friendly agricultural methods. "I've worked with more than half the farmers in the Scott Valley.

Everyone is willing to do their part for fishery protection -- the question becomes how far is too far."

Still, "flows remain the number one issue, and this is a good time to sit down and talk," Black said. "That will work better around here than getting out the citation book."

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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