Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Critical Sucker Habitat: Another KBRA Pay-Out

On December 11, 2012 the US Fish & Wildlife Service published its final designation of Critical Habitat for Kuptu and Tsuam - two species of sucker fish found only in the Upper Klamath River Basin. Also known as the Shortnose and Lost River suckers, these fish have been listed as “endangered” under the US and California Endangered Species Acts since 1988. Critical Habitat for both species was first proposed by the federal government 18 years ago in 1994.  

While required by court order, the long-delayed designation of Critical Habitat in the Upper Klamath River Basin reflects the desire of the US Bureau of Reclamation and the irrigation interests it serves to be freed from restraints on their management of Klamath River water. The Bureau and irrigation interests want to maximize irrigation water delivery; that requires limiting Klamath River flows as well as the water provided for other fish and wildlife purposes. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement or KBRA contains provisions designed to facilitate that objective. Through the KBRA the Bureau and its irrigators hopes to secure the “relief” they desire from the Endangered Species Act and other wildlife protection laws.

Tsuam (C'waam), aka Lost River Sucker, was listed as "endangered" in 1988

Media reports on the recent Critical Habitat designation fail to make the connection between the designation and the KBRA. In typical fashion, reporters and editors present the designation as an isolated act. Below KlamBlog lays out the connections and provides the context which mainstream reporters fail to provide.   

Wildlife management and the KBRA

One of the most insidious aspects of the KBRA is the manner in which the complex and controversial agreement treats wildlife protection laws including the US and California Endangered Species Acts (the ESA and C-ESA), the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Bald Eagle Protection Act and California's fully protected species laws .  On the one hand, the KBRA affirms that the ESA and these other laws will be upheld throughout the Klamath River Basin; on the other hand, the deal contains provisions which undermine the integrity and effectiveness of these laws within a specific portion of the Klamath River Basin - the roughly 40% of the Basin located above Iron Gate Dam, including most of the Lost River Sub-Basin.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Bureaucratic Drought in the Upper Klamath....again!

While irrigation has turned vast portions of it green, the American West remains, for the most part, a summer dry region. Pervasive green fields and suburban lawns don't reflect the climate but rather the fact that most western rivers have been tapped for irrigation and municipal water. And while debate continues over how much water must remain in these rivers in order to sustain healthy aquatic ecosystems and meet other Public Trust obligations, it is accepted science that - in order to sustain aquatic ecosystems and fisheries - flows should be managed to mimic the natural hydrograph.

What this means is that flows in western rivers should be higher during winter and spring when flows are naturally higher, and lower during late summer and fall when flows are naturally low. While this pattern applies to all western rivers, each river has a unique hydrograph. Flows should be managed to rise and fall according to that unique pattern. Moreover, just as each river's natural hydrograph was different year to year, so too must managed flows be varied to simulate natural year-to-year flow variability.

While most attention has focused on minimum (i.e. late summer and fall) flows, river scientists have also discovered that high winter flows and  even periodic floods are needed to sustain healthy river ecosystems. High flows maintain channel structure and optimal riparian conditions.

River scientists have discovered that healthy rivers need flood flows.
This image shows flood flows at Klamath Glen in the Lower Klamath

Because we have a long record of flows in most western rivers, determining a rivers natural hydrograph is usually not difficult. The State of California, for example, uses flow records to calculate what river flows would be if no water was removed from California Rivers for irrigation and other purposes.

Managing to mimic the natural hydrograph, however, is often controversial. Irrigation interests, municipalities and industries always seem to want more water and they work hard to get it. Resisting those demands in order to mimic the natural hydrograph has proven problematic for the federal agencies which manage most western rivers. When politicians and interests demand more water, the managers of western rivers - typically the Army Corp of Engineers or US Bureau of Reclamation - tend to comply.

Irrigation Elite demands

While there is great controversy over the magnitude of the flows it prescribes, The Klamath River Basin's controversial water deal - the KBRA - does call for managing Klamath River flows to mimic the natural hydrograph.  But no sooner was the ink dry on that document than one of the signing "parties" - the Klamath Water Users Association - launched a campaign to make sure the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) did not follow the KBRA's flow prescriptions.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Coho Reprieve – Scott Valley streams finally flow!

In recent days heavy, sustained rain has been falling across Northern California. At 11 AM on December 2nd, forty-eight hour rainfall totals in the Scott River Valley were 2.38” at Fort Jones and 2.79” at Callahan. As a result of the heavy rain, streams draining into the Scott River Valley – including the East and South Forks of Scott River - finally connected to the main Scott River on December 1.

This means that most Coho seeking to spawn in streams draining into Scott River will be able to reach prime spawning ground. KlamBlog has previously reported that Chinook Salmon were denied access to these spawning grounds as a result of a relatively dry fall combined with stream dewatering by some irrigators, including those using the Farmers Ditch in the Upper Scott Valley below Callahan.

Judging from USGS streamflow data  Scott Valley tributaries to Scott River probably briefly connected to the main river on November 22nd at the end of the last sustained rainfall period. However, streamflow dropped quickly at the end of those storms to well below the long-term average and the streams once again disconnected from the main river. 

Scott River Flows - USGS Gage - Nov. 26 - Dec. 3, 2012

Much of the relatively large run of Chinook salmon which ascended the Scott River in October was not able to access the highest quality spawning grounds in streams entering Scott Valley including (from the lower end of Scott Valley to the top at Callahan) Shakleford Creek, Kidder Creek, Patterson Creek, Etna Creek, French Creek, Sugar Creek, Wildcat Creek, East Fork and South Fork.

This year the Scott River in Scott Valley below Etna Creek did not go completely dry although flows below Etna became very low. As KlamBlog reported, however, the River did go dry below the Farmers Ditch in what is known as the "tailings section" of Scott Valley below Callahan. In dryer years, however, Scott River often goes dry below Fort Jones. When the rains do not return early enough, Chinook salmon can not even access spawning grounds in the main part of Scott Valley – much less in the tributaries.

Why the disconnect?

Irrigation interest in the Scott River Valley – and their supporters on the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors – are fond of claiming that these streams disconnected from the River even before the coming of white Europeans and the onset of irrigation diversions.

There is some truth in that. The main streams enter Scott Valley from the western mountains. Past storms and floods have carried much sand, soil and gravel from these mountains and deposited the load in broad alluvial fans where the streams leave the mountains. It is probable that some of these streams went underground toward the end of the dry season in late summer and early fall when flows were lowest. However, it is clear from old journals and reports that the major streams – including Shakleford, Kidder, Etna and French Creeks as well as the East and South Forks - connected to Scott River year around. Even the smaller tributaries flowed for much longer periods during spring and early summer and returned sooner in the Fall.

So what factors account for the fact that Chinook salmon – which once spawned in all Scott River tributaries – now only make it to prime spawning grounds in the tributary creeks in wetter years?