Saturday, September 26, 2009

The California Department of Fish and Game: Is it corrupt or just clueless?

One day this week KlamBlog experienced an interesting coincidence. On the same day we received word from a whistleblower that 1500 Fall Chinook salmon are stranded in the lower Shasta River Canyon as a result of low flows, we also received FedEx delivery of the California Department of Fish and Game’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed “Shasta River Watershed-wide Permitting Program.” The adult Chinook are stranded in hot water which may kill them - or kill the eggs inside females - before they can reach spawning ground; the permitting program is designed to render the irrigation and other agricultural practices which stranded the fish in hot water legal under state law.

As of this report six dead adult Chinook have been recovered at the CDFG fish counting weir on the lower Shasta River. The photo below is of one of these fish – a female loaded with eggs. It is expected that many more dead adult Chinook are present in the lower Shasta but are not visible due to water so packed with algae and suspended cattle manure that visibility is severely limited.

Dead Shasta River Chinook Salmon full of unspawned eggs
Photo by Malena Marvin courtesy of Klamath Riverkeeper

If it survives the legal challenges which are planned by fishermen, environmentalists and (possibly) tribes, CDFG’s Watershed-wide Permit will render the Shasta Valley agricultural operations of those who sign up for the permits legal under provisions of the California Endangered Species Act as well as other Fish & Game Codes designed to protect fish. The practices CDFG wants to permit under this program are also responsible for the demise of countless young Chinook and Coho salmon which die each year in the Shasta River while they are trying to migrate to the sea.

Furthermore, in the FedEx package from CDFG we received the Final EIS for a nearly identical program for agricultural interests in the nearby Scott River Basin. The Shasta and Scott together once produced among the largest numbers of wild Chinook and Coho salmon coming from tributaries to the Klamath and Trinity Rivers and they remain essential habitat areas which must produce healthy and abundant salmon if wild Coho and Chinook are to ever recover in the Klamath River Basin.

The demise of Shasta River Coho and Chinook salmon is due primarily to the dewatering of the Shasta River and key tributaries in order to maximize delivery of irrigation water to Shasta Valley farms and ranches. This is not something that happened long ago but rather a saga which continues today. Here’s a short chronology of the demise of salmon in the Shasta. Most of the data presented below is from Life History, Status, and Distribution of Klamath River Chinook Salmon by Jafet Andersson and the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Chinook Salmon Status Review. The rest is from whistleblowers:

  • For the most part, the Shasta River escaped the impact which the Gold Rush of the 1850s and 60s visited on salmon in other nearby rivers – the Scott, Salmon, Trinity and Upper Sacramento. That is because the Shasta River Basin is primarily volcanic and no gold can be found in volcanic rocks and soil. In other nearby basins miners dammed, diverted and silted rivers and streamed with abandon. Some of the salmon runs on which local Indigenous folk depended were decimated but others were not affected. While mining impacts continued for some time, when the big rush ended salmon stocks began to recover.

  • As late as the 1920s government fisheries folks were reporting large numbers of Spring and Fall Chinook adults spawning in the Shasta River. It is estimated that 5,000 Spring Chinook and up to100,000 Fall Chinook spawned in the Shasta River before large scale irrigation development – including the construction of Dwinnell Dam and Reservoir (aka Lake Shastina) in 1926 to capture and divert water to farms and ranches.

Dwinnell Reservoir in Summer (note toxic algae scum)

  • By 1930 Spring Chinook were extirpated from the Shasta River Basin. Dwinnell Dam and Reservoir had cut off access to the deep, cold pools in the upper Shasta River and upper Parks Creek. Springers depended on these deep, cold pools high in the watershed in order to survive through the hot summer in order to spawn in the fall.

  • Between 1930 and 1950 the number of adult Fall Chinook salmon spawning in the Shasta River declined from over 80,000 to less than 1,000 fish.

  • Between 1950 and 2003 the number of Shasta River spawners was up and down but the overall trend was down. Estimates of the decline range from 2.5% to 5%. The expenditure of an estimated $30 million of taxpayer funds on “habitat restoration” in the Shasta River Basin during this period failed to stem the decline of Shasta River Fall Chinook.

  • Sometime in the late 1980s, the Grenada Irrigation District drilled wells to tap the underground river which emerges at Big Springs in the middle of the Shasta River Valley. The flow from Big Springs has diminished from 100-120 cubic feet per second prior to the well drilling to 20-40 cubic feet per second now. Most of the residual flow is diverted by other irrigators downstream. Flows in the Shasta have declined dramatically as a result. The North Coast Water Quality Board has determined that increasing the flow from Big Springs by 45 cubic feet per second would reduce water temperature at the mouth of the Shasta River by 2 degrees Celsius. Those 2 degrees can make the difference between death and survival for salmon eggs inside adult females and for vulnerable young salmon migrating to the sea.

Aerial view of Big Springs
The black dots in the water and on land are cattle
  • This year USGS recorded flows in the Shasta River during August and September have been among the lowest flows ever recorded. Flow records go back to 1933.

The California Department of Fish and Game is responsible for protecting Public Trust Resources – including salmon – for the benefit of all Californians. For CDFG chief Don Koch (pronounced “Cook”) it is his sworn duty to protect the salmon for his employer – current and future California citizens. Yet, as outlined in the history above, Koch and those under him have been complicit in the demise of Shasta River salmon.

Now Kock and CDFG want to legalize the destruction by offering permits which will allow the continued dewatering of the Shasta River. If this is allowed to go forward KlamBlog believes we can kiss Shasta River Chinook goodbye. That is one of several reasons EPIC – the Environmental Protection and Information Center - opposed confirmation of Koch as CDFG’s chief executive even as the big environmental and fishing groups were falling over each other to praise him. Before Governator Schwarzenegger appointed him to the top post at CDFG, Koch headed the agency’s Northern District. In that role he has been the official most responsible for the decline and current state of Shasta River Chinook and all Klamath River Salmon.

Is the desire of Donald Koch and the Schwarzenegger Administration to legalize the dewatering of the Shasta and Scott River and the extirpation of salmon from these watersheds corruption? Most readers would probably say “No” – that corruption involves taking bribes and acting illegally.

But the primary definition of corruption in the Merriam Webster dictionary is: impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle. Is it moral and a sign of integrity and virtue when the state official with the most responsibility for assuring that salmon survive and recover not only abrogates that responsibility but also takes action to render the destruction of our salmon legal under state law?

It has been said that “Democracy is the only system that persists in asking the powers that be whether they are the powers that ought to be.” Don Koch should not be the power in the California Department of Fish and Game. Instead he should be denied confirmation by the California Senate and drummed out of CDFG. This is a necessary step to restore the integrity and reputation of the California Department of Fish and Game

As far as we can tell the Senate has not yet confirmed Koch. You can weigh in with the Senate Rules Committee concerning whether or not he should be confirmed as director of CDFG. Send your comments to:

The Honorable Darrell Steinberg, Chair
Senate Rules Committee
State Capitol, Room 420
Sacramento, CA 95814
Attention: Nettie Sabelhaus, Appointments Director

Or you can send an on-line message to Rules Committee Chair Darrell Steinburg via this link.

CDFG’s corrupt and misguided Watershed-wide Permitting Programs for the Shasta and Scott Rivers will go down in flames – or in a flurry of court orders. But that will not be enough. We need a Fish and Game Department which faithfully discharges its duty to uphold the laws which have been enacted to protect and preserve Public Trust resources. We don’t have such an agency today. Getting rid of Koch is a necessary first step but that alone will not end the official corruption. What Californians need and should demand is a Department of Fish and Game with the guts and integrity to fulfill its duties to fish, wildlife and the people of California.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

KBRA opposition group goes to court

It will come as no surprise to those who have actually read the proposed Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) that a lawsuit has now been filed to block its implementation. That is because when one strips away the fine sounding words, the 500+ page agreement, if implemented, would provide the small group of wealthy irrigators who get irrigation water via the federal Klamath Project with a competitive advantage over other farmers in the Klamath Basin. The lawsuit was filed by some of those other irrigators.

Here’s a partial list of the advantages so-called “On Project” irrigators will have IF promoters of the KBRA manages to succeed in their bid to use a separate dam removal deal to turn the KBRA into federal and state legislation:
  • On Project irrigators would have a legislative guarantee to first call on Klamath River Basin water. Currently fish which are listed pursuant to the federal Endangered Species Act are the first priority in Klamath water allocation. Under the KBRA On Project irrigators would get some of that water. During drought years, the federal government would have to buy the water back in order to provide bare survival flows for salmon and other fish.
  • On Project irrigators would be shielded from any efforts to reduce water demand in the Basin. Instead Off-Project irrigators would be targeted for a major reduction in the water use.
  • On Project irrigators would get access to cheap Bonneville Power; Off Project irrigators would have to pay substantially more for the power needed to pump irrigation water.
  • On Project irrigators would get legislatively guaranteed access to commercially farm on the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges – the only refuges in the country where production agriculture is allowed.
  • While On and Off Project irrigators would get a wink-and-nod ESA non-enforcement plan from the feds, on Project irrigators would also be shielded from provisions of the California Endangered Species Act which – if conservationists had the guts to file the lawsuits – could currently be used to put refuges ahead of these irrigators in the allocation of Klamath River Basin water.
The fact that the proposed KBRA gives everything they desire to a small group of wealthy irrigators while imposing responsibility for reducing water demand on the Off Project Irrigators is one reason we refer to the On Project irrigators as the Irrigation Elite.

Based on these glaring inequalities, the Off Project irrigators should be able to garner substantial support from the American Public whose predilection for fairness and a level playing field is legendary. But vocal Off Project irrigators often appear to be more interested in keeping the Klamath Tribes from realizing its dream of a restored reservation than in securing a level playing field. This reminds us of what Extension specialists from Oregon State University found when they assessed the impacts of the 2001 irrigation water shut-off. Several Upper Basin residents interviewed referred to the “undercurrent of racism” which has at times risen to the surface during Klamath Basin water conflicts. Klamath Tribal Attorney Bud Ullman has addressed the issue most directly.

KlamBlog predicts that this is not the last litigation that will be filed related to the KBRA. Indeed, the proposed KBRA could result in numerous lawsuits and decades of litigation for a proposal that its promoters once claimed would bring Peace to the Klamath.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Klamath River: Will dam removal be enough to help fish?

Guest Opinion from the Oregonian and Oregon Live

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet.

The Oregonian/2002Thousands of dead salmon line the shores of the Klamath River in September 2002.

by Ani Kame'enui and Bob Hunter

Wednesday September 09, 2009, 9:38 AM

In a few short weeks, Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River in southern Oregon will be no more. The demolition of this concrete barrier, long recognized as the biggest fish killer on the Rogue, will have immediate and powerful results for salmon.

Just a few miles south, negotiations drag on in the hopes of removing four dams on another Oregon river -- the Klamath. The proposed date for their removal, should parties strike a final deal, is more than 10 years away, sometime after the year 2020. However, when and if the dams do come down, Klamath salmon may still be out of luck.

Both the Rogue and the Klamath are trending toward a future without massive dams. Why is one set to thrive while the other may face more turmoil? The Oregonian hit the spigot on the head in an Aug. 24 editorial ("The Klamath: A river dying for movement"). Water.

More specifically, how much will flow in these rivers if the dams are gone, and how much will continue to be drawn out to feed thirsty commercial agricultural interests upstream?

The Rogue has its share of irrigation withdrawals, but nothing quite like the massive, government-run Klamath Irrigation Project. There, high-desert fields are fed with 400,000 acre-feet of water each year. It was these excessive water withdrawals in the drought year of 2002 that caused the largest fish kill in the history of the West.

That year, up to 70,000 salmon washed up dead on the banks of the Klamath River, poisoned by hot, disease-filled waters drawn too low by irrigation diversions. Low flows were at the root of the fish kill.

The tragic scene from 2002 was all part of political machinations orchestrated from the White House by then Vice President Dick Cheney. Sadly, the same sort of water politics that caused the 2002 kill are being used today to guarantee too much water for irrigation at the expense of salmon.

Of course, we know that fish need water to survive, and the best available science tells us we need to give them more than negotiators plan to provide. Otherwise we could see a repeat of the 2002 disaster.

Insufficient water flow for fish isn't the only environmental trade-off made in the current negotiations. The 100-year-old Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and its neighboring refuge, Tule Lake, are being used as trading stock in this year's Klamath deal. Large swaths of these refuges -- originally protected to provide habitat for unique wildlife -- are currently plowed under each year to grow potatoes and onions. This harmful practice would continue unabated for another 50 years in the current draft settlement.

These refuges are at the heart of the Pacific flyway and provide a haven for thousands of migratory birds. The Klamath refuge system supports a world-renowned bird-watching mecca, an industry that pumps tens of billions of dollars into the national economy.

As negotiations drag on, we must ask the tough questions. Will dam removal alone be enough for Klamath salmon? Can eagles, egrets and geese afford the continued destruction of some of their most critical wetland habitat for 50 more years?

In the end, we can find a balance that removes dams without sacrificing needed river flows and national wildlife refuges. For too long, the needs of salmon and wildlife have taken a back seat. It's time to write a new chapter in the story of the Klamath.

Ani Kame'enui is Klamath campaign coordinator for Oregon Wild. Bob Hunter is a staff attorney for WaterWatch of Oregon.


To read this OpEd, the Oregonian's own Klamath editorial and letter to the editor about the Klamath click here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Another salmon disaster in the making!

The Scott River is dry and dying. Here’s a photo of the "river" on August 31st near the town of Fort Jones:

Bed of the Scott River at State Route 3, August 31, 2009

Unless there are large, sustained rainstorms soon, Chinook salmon which are ascending the Klamath River now will not be able to reach spawning grounds in most of the Scott River Basin – a major Klamath tributary. And unless there are big rainstorms over the next three months Coho salmon will also be trapped low down in Scott River Canyon and will not reach spawning grounds in the Scott River Valley and above.

Farmers and ranchers in the Scott River Valley are beginning to irrigate a third cutting of alfalfa. Rice – a new and thirsty crop - and cattle pastures are also being irrigated – some with brand new pumps and center pivot systems paid for by US taxpayers. If you ask them, these folks will acknowledge that the low Scott River flows are not good for salmon. Many will quickly add that the flows we see this year are natural given two years of below normal precipitation. Examination of historical flow, precipitation and snowpack data, however, as well as comparison with other nearby streams, does not back up that assertion.

Real time and historical flow data available on line from the California Department of Water Resources indicate that, in fact, low late summer and fall flows are becoming more common in the Scott. Since the year 2000, for example, August Scott River flow has been below 1,000 acre feet in 5 out of 9 years (an acre foot is the amount of water sufficient to cover an acre of land in one foot of water).

This August 343 acre feet of water flowed past the government-operated flow gauge in the Scott River below the agriculture-dominated Scott Valley. This is the second lowest August flow for the Scott ever recorded; the lowest (339 acre feet) was in 2001. But the 1980s and 1990s had only three such years and from 1960 through 1980 the Scott’s August flow only once dipped below 1400 acre feet. That was the year of the famous 1977 California Drought. The Scott River’s August flow in 1977 was 632 acre feet.

These numbers tell a story of progressive river dewatering as more irrigation wells are drilled each year:

Taxpayers paid for irrigation systems under the Klamath EQIP Program

The Scott River accounts for the bulk of non-hatchery Klamath River Basin Coho production Along with the nearby Shasta Rive - which is experiencing flows nearly as bad as those in the Scott - the Scott River also produces a sizable chunk of the Klamath’s non-hatchery Chinook salmon. If Chinook salmon can not reach Shasta and Scott spawning grounds this year we will be looking at yet another closure of commercial and sport fishing up and down the coast of California and Southern Oregon three and four years from now. With the loss of that fishery comes big economic losses to coastal and river communities which depend on sport and commercial fishing business

Yet, in spite of past and looming salmon disasters, the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) – the agency responsible for protecting salmon and other Public Trust Resources in California - is planning to give those responsible for the dewatering of the Scott and Shasta Rivers a free pass to keep pumping more and more water and consequently to keep killing thousands of young salmon each and every year. CDFG has proposed providing agricultural operations in the Shasta and Scott with a permit to “take” Coho salmon. As proposed, the permit would provide legal coverage for all agricultural operations – including the unlimited pumping of groundwater.

But it is that very groundwater pumping which a recent peer reviewed scientific assessment found to be the prime cause of the Scott River’s dewatering. In their 2008 statistical study of 5 streams in the Klamath Mountains published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, Robert Van Kirk and Seth Naman reached the following conclusion:
“39% of the observed 10 Mm3 decline in July 1-October 22 discharge (flow) in the Scott River is explained by regional-scale climatic factors. The remainder of the decline is attributable to local factors, which include an increase in irrigation withdrawal from 48 to 103 Mm3/year since the 1950s” (emphasis added).

Other nearby streams have also experienced flow declines in recent decades. But no other stream has had declines anywhere near the magnitude Van Kirk and Naman found on the Scott. The full Van Kirk-Naman study is available on line.

For the past 25 years the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Bureau of Reclamation, California Department of Fish and Game and Forest Service have poured an estimated $25 million in taxpayer funds into the Scott River Basin in order to restore salmon. A similar amount has been spent in the Shasta River Basin. Yet throughout this period Chinook and Coho salmon stocks have declined while the dewatering of the Scott and Shasta Rivers progressed unabated. Most “restoration” in the Scott and Shasta River Basins has helped farmers; benefits to salmon have been minimal. Except for giving cover for continued dewatering, recovery and restoration of salmon in the Scott and Shasta has been a bust.

Managers working for the US Forest Service have been among those who have failed to take action to end the dewatering. In the Scott River Basin, the Forest Service holds a court adjudicated water right to flows in the Scott River below the agricultural Scott Valley which are sufficient to maintain salmon and other fish in “good condition”. Yet these managers have remained silent even though the adjudicated water right they hold is increasingly not being met in the late summer and fall – the very time when Chinook and Coho salmon are migrating up the Klamath in order to reach spawning streams. Irrigators and Forest Service officials will tell you this right is secondary to irrigators’ rights. That is the way the adjudication decree reads. But the Forest Service right is riparian in origin and in California riparian rights take precedence over other water rights. Yet Forest Service managers refuse to act to stop the dewatering of the Scott.

The situation on the Scott and Shasta Rivers is evidence of the deep seated corruption which infest those agencies whose duty it is to protecting our fish and wildlife. But the self-styled “defenders” of Klamath River Salmon are also not without blame. Environmentalists, fishing organizations and Klamath River Basin tribes have been silent and inactive for far too long as the dewatering of the Scott and Shasta Rivers has progressed.

Scott River flows continue to decline today even as irrigation continues. There are rumblings of discontent and rumors that action will be taken to stop and reverse the dewatering. So far, however, no action has been taken. Will the environmental, tribal and fishing communities which have been partners in championing living rivers and salmon recovery step up, join together and act to keep corrupt state and federal officials from allowing these rivers to die? Will those who have engaged in direct action for salmon in locations as far away as Scotland, Omaha, Sacramento and Salem also act to highlight the dewatering of the Scott and Shasta Rivers?

Stay tuned!