Illegal Pasture Irrigation in Scott River Basin Driving Klamath Salmon Extinct

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Out-of-season pasture irrigation, Tozier Ranch, Shakleford Creek Watershed, Scott River Valley, November 13, 2019. Photo: Felice Pace.
Out-of-season pasture irrigation, Tozier Ranch, Shakleford Creek Watershed, Scott River Valley, November 13, 2019. Photo: Felice Pace.

Located near the middle of the Klamath River Basin, the Scott River watershed once hosted large runs of spring and fall Chinook salmon. With its small streams and beaver dams, the Scott River Valley was also the Klamath River Basin’s number one watershed for coho salmon. However, unregulated and excessive irrigation water diversion, combined with the unregulated extraction of groundwater for irrigation, drove spring Chinook to local extinction back in the late 70s. Scott River Basin irrigation and stream dewatering is also a major reason Klamath River coho are listed as “threatened” pursuant to state and federal endangered species laws. Now, as a result of another dry fall, combined with continued unregulated irrigation, even the fall-run Chinook are being driven toward extinction.

This fall, Scott River flows have been too low to allow passage into and through most of the Scott River. As a result, Chinook salmon were not able to make it to their natal spawning grounds in and above Scott Valley. Once exceedingly rare, low flow barriers blocking access to the best and most extensive spawning grounds have become a nearly yearly occurrence on the Scott. Yet a number of ranches continue to irrigate pastures.

Irrigation in the Scott River Valley is taking place after irrigation is supposed to have ended as specified in the Scott River Basin’s three water rights adjudications. Furthermore, the illegal, out-of-season irrigation is going on in plain sight and in spite of Public Trust Water Rights Complaints about the practice, which I have filed as a Scott River Basin small landowner with the State Water Board’s Water Rights Division every fall beginning in 2013.

State action is needed now more than ever because climate change is also negatively impacting water supplies. The right to specific water flows for fish in Scott River is not met during longer and longer periods each year, including the salmon migration and spawning periods, and even in years of “above average” precipitation and snow pack. And, due to technicalities in the Scott River Water Rights Decrees, most irrigation in the Scott River Basin is now not subject to watermaster service (watermasters make sure stream diversions don’t remove water in excess of each diverter’s water right).

Securing Scott River Flow Rights 

Unlike most other California streams, the Scott River has a court adjudicated right to specific river flows for fish year-round. However, beginning in 1977, groundwater extraction for irrigation mushroomed, as well as illegal pasture irrigation in the fall.

Scott River flow rights are held by the U.S. Forest Service (FS); but FS officials have taken no action to secure those rights, allowing irrigators above to dewater the Scott River and key tributaries with impunity. Even when watermaster service was ended in most of Scott Valley, Forest Service managers of the Klamath National Forest took no action to demand the service in order to make sure water theft is not negating the public’s flow right for fish.

Watermasters make sure irrigators are not diverting in excess of their water rights; the absence of watermaster service in much of the Scott River Basin means that even more water theft can take place, further damaging the flows needed for salmon and the stream ecosystems on which the salmon depend.

Forest Service managers of the Klamath National Forest have an obligation to demand watermaster service for that purpose. Because all Californians have a Public Trust interest in surface water state-wide, you have the power to help end Scott River dewatering. See the box on this page for information on how you can help.

The River’s Need

The Scott River and its salmon are being progressively destroyed by unregulated surface water diversions in excess of water rights and unregulated groundwater extraction, all for irrigation. Maybe this year the State Water Board will finally take action to at least end the illegal irrigation and secure watermaster service. Or perhaps the groundwater management plan due in 2022 will finally begin to restore the flows needed to sustain a living Scott River. In order to stop the destruction, I have come to believe a tribe, fishing or environmental group with muscle and lawyers will need to break open and fix the Scott River Water Adjudications. The sooner that happens, the better.

Take Action Now for a Living Scott River

• Tell Klamath National Forest Supervisor Patricia Grantham to do her duty by demanding that the Department of Water Resources provide watermaster service for all stream diversion above the USGS Scott River flow gauge where the Forest Service right to Scott River flows for fish is measured:

Patricia A. Grantham, Forest Supervisor
Klamath National Forest
1711 South Main Street, Yreka, CA 96097

• Tell the State Water Resources Control Board’s top Public Trust official that, in order to protect the Public Trust, Public Trust Resources and the river flows needed to sustain those resources, including C-ESA Listed coho salmon, and in light of the current absence of watermaster service and the documented diversion of water in excess of water rights, they should conduct year-around surveillance of all surface water diversions in the Scott River Valley, especially at times of year when the Forest Service right to flows for fish in Scott River is not being met:

Erik Ekdahl, Deputy Director
Division of Water Rights
State Water Resources Control Board
Sacramento, CA 95814