Friday, October 30, 2015

Another salmon disaster in the Klamath River Basin

There is another salmon disaster taking place right now in the Klamath River Basin but, like much that is newsworthy concerning the plight of salmon in this river basin, it is not being reported. 

By late October most of the fall run of Chinook salmon should have already spawned in tributaries that flow into the Scott River Valley. Those streams, including Shakleford, Kidder, Etna, French, Sugar and the South Fork Scott rise in the Trinity, Russian Peak and Marble Mountain Wilderness areas. As a result they have cold water and clean gravel perfect for salmon spawning. 

But at 6.5 cfs (cubic feet per second) flows in the Scott River are so low that a reportedly large run of Chinook salmon is stuck in the lower reaches of the River and can not reach the majority of spawning grounds which are located about 20 river miles upriver from the Scott's confluence with the Klamath River. 

 Salmon mass near the river's mouth waiting for enough water to make their spawning run

Unless sustained heavy rains come soon, most Chinook salmon production from the Scott River Basin will be lost this year and Coho spawning will be curtailed, continuing a trend toward extirpation of Scott River Salmon from the basin. The lack of access to spawning grounds in and above the Scott River Valley is not particular to this drought year but rather occurs with increasing regularity (see, for example, the 2012 KlamBlog at this link). Sometimes the rains and flows come in time for the Chinook and sometimes not. Because their spawning run occurs in November and December, Coho spawning is less often affected.

Losses of wild salmon production like those that are likely this year in Scott River, along with an epidemic of salmon diseases, are decimating the Klamath's wild salmon populations. As a result native, ocean commercial and sport fishermen and related economies are more and more dependent on salmon raised in hatcheries below Iron Gate and Trinity Dams. Dwindling wild salmon production  ultimately threatens the entire salmon run because over-reliance on hatcheries destroys the genetic diversity which allows salmon to survive in changing landscapes. 

Politically motivated reporting:

Why is it that some threats to Klamath River Salmon are the subject of numerous media reports while other disasters - like what is happening to Scott River Chinook right now - go unreported? KlamBlog believes the answer has to do with staffing cuts that have left media outlets overdependent on government and organizational press releases. 

Government agencies only issue press releases that serve their organizational interests. In this case, calling attention to the plight of Scott River Salmon could mean that federal and state fish and water agencies would have to take action to address the dewatering of the Scott River; something they apparently do not want to take on. 

Tribal governments have also been silent about the plight of Scott River Salmon. Like all governments, tribal governments have multiple agendas and motivations. Some Klamath River Basin tribes may have political motivation to keep silent in order to not antagonize right wing county governments that hold keys to whether certain tribal objectives will be achieved. But it is baffling why organizations like Klamath Riverkeeper, which was created by the Klamath Forest Alliance specifically to publicize and oppose threats to Klamath River Salmon and which once focused on the Scott River, are also silent. Is Klamath Riverkeeper so enamored of the romance of dam removal both here and around the globe that it does not see more immediate threats to the Klamath River and Klamath Salmon?    

Whose interest is served by silence?

Keeping mum about threats to Scott River Salmon serves the interest of irrigators and their supporters who have carefully cultivated the idea that extraordinary measures are being taken by the agricultural community to help salmon survive and thrive in the Scott River Basin.

In truth, there have been some extraordinary efforts. There is one Scott Valley rancher who has dedicated part of his water right for in stream use in French Creek, a major salmon spawning stream. Another water user has dedicated water to sustain flows in Sugar Creek. In addition, the Scott River Water Trust has strategically leased water to provide flows which, in some dry years, have improved conditions in key Coho tributaries and even aided Chinook to reach most of the spawning grounds which are located in and above the Scott River Valley.  

Most Scott River Valley irrigators, however, take no interest in salmon and continued practices which dewater streams at times of year critical to salmon. Practices common in the Scott River Valley which harm salmon include dewatering streams when irrigation diversions are turned on in the spring, irrigating with surface water late in the fall when, according to water adjudication decrees, irrigation is supposed to have ended, running irrigation ditches full year around when water rights call for only diverting 0.1 to 2 cfs for stockwatering, and extracting so much interconnected groundwater that springs which should feed the river go dry and don't return until well into winter after salmon spawning season has concluded. 

Most of these practices are illegal under California law; some of them also result in the "take" of Coho Salmon, a violation of federal and state endangered species laws. 

Illegal flood irrigation from Farmer's Ditch on Oct 30, 2007. Under the Scott 
River Adjudication  irrigation was supposed to have ended on October 15th

In fact, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife enables irrigator lawbreaking by "rescuing" Coho and Chinook Salmon stranded in streams dewatered in spring when irrigation ditches are turned on. This taxpayer financed "fish rescue" program serves to hide the illegal "take" of Coho Salmon even though state law prohibits dewatering fish habitat below dams and stream diversions.  Back in 1991 a SF Chronicle investigation found that officials at the "highest levels" within what was then the Department of Fish and Game had ordered wardens not to enforce that law in the Scott and Shasta River Basins.      

Dead Coho and Chinook stranded by diversion of the water for irrigation.
Patterson Creek, July 2011 (photo by Klamath Riverkeeper)

Is it just the drought? 
Defenders of the Scott River Valley irrigators will no doubt claim that the reason there is too little water in Scott River this year is the drought. They will point out that irrigation has now ended and that many of the ditches which would ordinarily carry stockwater at this time of year are dry because there is no water in the streams to divert. 
There is no doubt that part of the reason Scott River flows are so low this year is the drought. But the unrestrained pumping of groundwater from early spring through late October substantially lowers the water table in the Scott River Valley. Springs which should be feeding the river at this time of year are dry and will not run until winter rains can replenish the aquifer (see this link for documentation). Also, certain surface right holders continue to run their ditches full at this time of year when they only have stock watering rights. Some even irrigate pastures after the irrigation season is supposed to have ended because they want to soak pastures before the first freeze.  

 Like this Etna Creek diversion on March 2 2003, several Scott Valley irrigation ditches are run full year-around
These illegal practices take place with impunity because state regulators won't act to stop them in spite of Public Trust complaints which have been filed asking them to end wide-spread illegal water diversion and use in the Scott River Valley. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Resources Control Board know about this situation but they do nothing to end the illegality.  
Complaints have also been filed with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is supposed to protect ESA-listed Coho salmon, calling attention to the "take" of Coho when streams are dewatered by irrigators; NMFS has so far proven unwilling to take on the irrigators and the right wing extremists who say they are ready to get out their guns to prevent federal agents from enforcing laws which conflict with what they call the "custom and culture" of Siskiyou County. KlamBlog suspects by that they mean the custom and culture of WHITE Siskiyou County which historically has included organized campaigns to "exterminate" Indigenous Native Americans.
 Who will stand up for Scott River Salmon?
To summarize, flagrant abuses of water and wildlife laws in the Scott River Valley result in threats to Chinook and Coho Salmon each and every year. When irrigation ditches are turned on in spring. significant numbers of ESA-listed Coho Salmon are subjected to "take". In drought years most of the wild salmon production which should occur in the Scott River Basin is lost because the salmon can not access the spawning grounds. These occurrences are well known but ignored by the very officials who swore to uphold the laws which are supposed to protect fish, wildlife and streamflows. 
Failure of these same agencies to inform the public about the plight of Scott River Salmon this fall help keep citizens from asking questions which could make DFW and SWRCB uncomfortable and might even require them to take actions on behalf of the Salmon. For a variety of self-serving reasons, the declared "defenders" of Klamath River Salmon, including tribes, environmental and fishing organizations, know what is going on but do nothing to inform the public or challenge the agencies. 
And so salmon in the Scott River Valley hang on even as the runs grow weaker and more vulnerable over time. Spawning numbers in "good" years are heralded as evidence that irrigators care and are good stewards while the news in "bad" years is hidden from the public. 
 Even when flows return in late October, waiting for flows stresses adult salmon and some die before they can spawn
Scott River Salmon need real defenders in the form of organizations and tribes which are willing to stand up to Siskiyou County's radical right and demand that media outlets inform the public about what is going on. These fish need organizations who will expose corrupt officials and agencies which  refuse to do their duty but instead provide cover for illegal water diversion and use. In short, Scott River Salmon need real champions. Who will stand up?   


Anonymous said...

How are we looking after the rainfall?

Walter Collins said...

Did the recent storm help or hurt the salmon situation?

Felice Pace said...

The November storms did not help. Scott River flows stayed stuck at 7.4 cfs. That's because groundwater extraction now lowers the water table in Scott Valley so much that the springs on the westside of Scott Valley stop flowing. Each year as extraction increases it takes longer and longer for the groundwater level to recover enough for the springs to begin running. That means, for the flows to be sufficient to get the creeks and river flowing again in time for the Chinook, it must rain for three days straight. That did not happen this year until December. The flows have now increased so the Coho can make it to their spawning grounds. But the Chinook were forced to spawn in Scott Canyon far below Scott Valley. They spawned on top of one another and many of the eggs were lost (i.e. were washed out and became steelhead food) as a result.

Frank Wolf said...

I'm a recent arrival on the Klamath River. I moved up here from the SF Bay Area thinking I'd finally escaped the rat race, finally found my place in a more natural paradise. Ha! This entire region is infested with closed-minded, selfish and ready for violence extremists to such a degree that those of us who want to see the Klamath and her tributaries returned to their natural, pre-caucasian invasion health are fearful for our lives, our children, our pets, our everything.

In my humble opinion, Siskiyou County is proudly marching toward the extinction of her native salmonids so that a few hay farmers and cattle ranchers can live their illusional Western way of life...all at the expense of all of the rest of us.

As I drive up and down the middle Klamath River valley/canyon ever am I amazed at all the abandoned resorts, lodges, farms, and homes along the river. Why? Well, yes, that's a complicated question to answer, but I can't help but imagine if the Klamath was restored to her original un-damed free flowing state there would be some improvements; if water use was brought back into legal compliance, and the water thieves held accountable there would be yet more improvement to the river's overall health.

But alas, such is, for now anyway, just my dream as the powers that could reverse all the damage done, still being done, to this river are themselves involved in their own natural resources thievery, involved in making highly profitable weapons to support the even higher profitable wars they constantly engender all around the planet.

To some of us much of us would be much better off with a whole lot less of all of us. However, this still falls short of addressing what I see as some sort of genetic defect inherent to my species': willful ignorance of the harm we do to everything else as long as our actions are individually profitable. We've amassed so many layers of justification, rationalization, and "If you disagree with me then you are wrong" cynicism we just might not be able to help ourselves now.

Not today, nor tomorrow, but the edge of the abyss of extinction for our over-bloated population now surely approaches as we blithely march-on with our self-serving ways. Perhaps a few of us will survive, as we did 75,000 years ago when our species experienced its last population crisis. But even so, by then we will have extracted, destroyed the once vast natural resources that provided the means for our species to reach the technological level we now live in: our survivors will not be so fortunate, will rightly so hate us for what we have done.

I write this as a plea, looking for help in how to help ourselves overcome ourselves. Altruism seems dead in our highly competitive, winner-take-all form of capitalism. There are those of us who do care, but will we be burned at the stake by those who don't?