Klamath Salmon 2020 Outmigration: Late storms, a threatened lawsuit and faulty stream adjudications

Felice Pace, North Group Water Chairperson


In the February/March ECONEWS I reported on the difficulties Chinook and Coho salmon faced getting to their spawning grounds in the Scott River Basin last Fall. The Chinook never did make it even as irrigation ditches continued to run full and groundwater extraction for irrigation continued unabated. Luckily, big storms finally came and most Coho salmon, which reach the Scott from late November through December, were able to access key spawning grounds in and above the agriculture-dominated Scott Valley. 

May 1st snow survey results are now in. While precipitation in the Klamath River Basin is at about 40% of the long term average, snow pack on May 1st was only 8% of average for Klamath Mountains snow survey sites. Given those conditions, there is concern that many of the young salmon produced as a result of previous spawning runs will not be able to make it out of spawning streams and to the Pacific Ocean. 

Klamath Riverkeeper highlights the dewatering of Scott River near Fort Jones
(photo courtesy of Klamath Riverkeeper)

The concern is not limited to the Scott River Basin but extends to other streams and to the main Klamath River. Fueling the concern was a notice from the Trump Administration that, in order to maximize irrigation water delivery, The US Bureau of Reclamation would not provide the spring flushing flows which scientists tell us are needed to control salmon disease epidemics in the Klamath River. In some recent years the lack of high spring flows resulted in disease explosions and the death of up to 90% of the young salmon as they tried to reach the Pacific Ocean.  

Fortunately, the threat of a lawsuit by Earthjustice Seattle on behalf of Klamath River Tribes and salmon fishermen “persuaded” Trump’s Interior Department to relent; they have now provided the needed Klamath River spring flushing flows. But even as those flows took place, salmon scientists and restoration workers remained concerned that flows in key tributaries will not be sufficient for young Chinook, Coho and Steelhead to migrate from natal streams in order to reach the Klamath River and subsequently the Pacific Ocean. 

Concerns focus primarily on the agriculture dominated Shasta and Scott Basins. In those basins many irrigation ditches are run full year around no matter how little rain falls and how little snow accumulate in the mountains above. Groundwater extraction for crop irrigation, which gets into full swing in April, also negatively impacts streamflow, particularly in the Scott River Valley where groundwater and surface flows are closely interconnected.    

Fortunately, late storms and the advent of warm weather have increased flows in Scott River. As a result, and combined with the Klamath flushing flows, field biologists now expect that most Chinook fry, which head for the ocean soon after emerging from spawning gravels, will make it to the Pacific Ocean this year. On the Shasta River, however, and with Coho salmon and Steelhead trout in both the Shasta and Scott Basins, the concern has not abated. 


The Shasta River

Unlike the snowmelt streams of the Klamath Mountains, most of the Shasta River Basin is volcanic. As a consequence, springs there have near constant flow year around. But without the snowmelt flow bump seen on the Scott and other Klamath Mountains streams, salmon in the Shasta River basin are at great risk from dewatering every year as irrigation gets into full swing.  The dramatic reduction in flows when irrigation starts in the Shasta Basin is seen in the graph below which displays Shasta River flows from March 4 until May 4 as measured at the USGS Shasta River gauge. 

With flows under 30 cubic feet per second and water quality decreasing precipitously, many of the salmon which emerged from spawning gravels in the Shasta River Basin this year likely died or will die before they can reach the Klamath River. In the case of the Shasta, a similar loss of juvenile salmon occurs nearly every year. One of the best spawning streams, Parks Creek, for example, is dewatered every year over long stretches. In the words of one fish biologist, that turns living salmon fry into salmon jerky.

Parks Creek is significant not only because it would provide excellent salmon habitat if it were not dewatered but also because the Trump Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service is planning to bestow on major Parks Creek irrigators a Safe Harbor Agreement  (https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/action/enhancement-survival-permits-authorizing-shasta-river-template-safe-harbor-agreement-and) which will absolve them of responsibility for “take” of ESA-listed Coho salmon.  It is not surprising that one of those landowners is Sierra Pacific Industries founder and president Red Emerson. Emerson and other SPI executives are not only major clearcut-plantation loggers, they are major contributors to Republican and some Democratic political candidates at all levels of government. 


The Scott River

As noted above, the Scott is a very different story. There the annual plight of salmon is tied to the advent of major storms in the fall and to how much precipitation and snowpack accumulates over the course of winter. With snow pack at 8% of the long term average, this will be a deadly year for young Scott River salmon. It will be especially deadly because of the widespread practice of running irrigation ditches year-round and the near complete lack of watermaster service to make sure that those with surface water rights do not take more water than they have a right to divert. Groundwater extraction is also unregulated. In a well regulated basin, irrigation diversions and groundwater extraction would be limited in dry years so that fish (and those who depend on fish) are not made to bear alone the total impact of dry and drought years.

Fortunately, late snowstorms and the advent of warm weather snow melt bolstered Scott River flows just as salmon fry were emerging from spawning gravels.  The “bump” in streamflow is shown on the Scott flow graph illustration. As a result, it is expected that most Chinook salmon fry will make it from natal streams to the Klamath and Pacific this year. The story for Coho and Steelhead, however, is much different. 

After emerging from spawning gravels, Coho salmon and Steelhead trout do not immediately migrate to the ocean. Instead they remain in and near the streams where they were born and do not migrate to the ocean until they are one or even two years of age. But surviving over a summer in the Scott River Basin is difficult every year as unregulated irrigation continues unabated. No matter how much rain and snowpack are diminished, it is the fish, not irrigators, who bear the impact. This year is worse: as a direct result of unregulated irrigation during a very dry year, many if not most of the Coho salmon produced in the Scott, and many Steelhead trout as well, will also be turned into salmon jerky.   


Changing the dynamic

The State Water Resources Control Board is supposed to make sure that irrigation does not substantially damage the beneficial uses of surface and groundwater, including fisheries, stream ecosystems and water recreation. This year, as in many previous years, those who care about fish and the stream ecosystems of which they are a part, including the North Group Redwood Chapter Sierra Club, have protested the dewatering of Scott River Basin streams to the State Water Board and asked for regulation of irrigation in order to allow salmon to survive. 

But the Water Board tells us their hands are tied by those Scott River Stream Adjudications that do not require watermaster service or require extractors of groundwater that is interconnected with surface flows to report their water use. Until that changes, the survival of Scott River Salmon, and in particular Coho salmon, will remain dependent on early fall storms to get spawners to natal streams and on late storms and snowmelt to get young salmon out of those natal streams and down to the main Klamath River.

The inability (or is it reluctance?) on the part of the State Water Board to effectively regulate irrigation in the Shasta and Scott Basins is significant because those basins were once and could again be the breadbasket for Klamath River Basin salmon production. Until the dewatering of stream habitats in these two key sub-basins ends, Klamath salmon will not recover to levels of abundance needed to support tribal subsistence, sport and commercial salmon fishing. Ending dewatering will require that stream adjudications for both basins are opened and fixed so that the pain of inadequate streamflow is shared by all water users, not just the fish. This will become even clearer once four PacifiCorp dams come down and no large jump in salmon production results. 

I find it inexplicable that those who depend on salmon, including Klamath River Tribes, sport fishing organizations and commercial salmon fishermen, have not yet taken action to open and fix the Scott and Shasta River Basin stream adjudications. Perhaps they are counting on dam removal to boost salmon production, a conclusion that is highly questionable because it is not clear salmon can migrate past the two dams that will remain and though Keno Reservoir and Upper Klamath Lake where water quality is terrible and water temperatures are lethal for salmonids. In light of tribal and fishermen inaction, I believe it is the environmental community which must step up to get the job done.