Sierra Club: State Irrigation Plan – Is It Saving Klamath River Salmon?

Felice Pace, North Group Water Chair

In our last North Group Report in EcoNews, I wrote about the early August decision by the State Water Board to curtail irrigation in the Shasta and Scott River watersheds. Ground and surface irrigation were curtailed until flows in those rivers meet levels which the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) says are the absolute minimum needed to get adult Chinook and coho salmon to spawning grounds in and above the Scott and Shasta valleys and to get juvenile salmon out to the Pacific Ocean. In this report I’ll provide an update on the irrigation curtailments and how those have impacted flows and fish.
The State Water Board’s irrigation curtailment orders went into effect on August 30. Soon after, Water Board staff began mailing legal notices to all surface water right holders and all those extracting groundwater for irrigation. Diversion of surface flows for stockwatering was also limited by the orders.

Curtailment letters were received in early September just as salmon began entering the Shasta and Scott Rivers. The orders are designed to remain in effect until monthly flows that CDFW recommended for each watershed are met and to be reinstated if flows again fall below those bare minimums.

I was in the Scott Valley in mid-October and confirmed that most irrigators were obeying the curtailment orders. Reports from the Shasta were similar. Isolated instances where water was being diverted in excess of stockwatering needs were reported to Water Board staff.

The Shasta and Scott Sub-Basins are located in the Middle Klamath, above the Salmon River and just below the volcanic Cascades and Upper Basin. Photo source: Felice Pace.

Shasta River flows shot up within a few days of the irrigation curtailment, enabling salmon to begin migrating to their spawning grounds. On the Scott River, however, curtailment had little to no impact.

Scott River flows remained extremely low throughout September and most of October. Sections of Scott River and those major tributaries diverted for irrigation, which had dry sections most of the summer, remained dewatered, preventing salmon held up in the lower river from ascending to spawning grounds in and above the agricultural valley.

Fortunately, in late October major storms finally opened dewatered tributary creeks in Scott Valley. River flows shot up, allowing salmon waiting in the lower river to begin ascending to spawning grounds. Because the emergency flows were met, the curtailment order was lifted. It will be reimposed if flows in either the Shasta or the Scott again fall below emergency minimums for each month in each watershed.

Different Hydrology
The disparate effect of this year’s irrigation curtailments in the Shasta and Scott watersheds is the result of differences in geology and hydrology. The Shasta is a volcanic watershed wherein water is channeled into underground streams and emerges as large, cold springs. Scott Valley, on the other hand, is an alluvial basin: metamorphic bedrock overlaid by sediments. It is like a big bathtub filled with gravel. When irrigation lowers the water table, springs which feed the river cease to flow and the river is dewatered. In order for those springs and the river to flow again, the bathtub must be refilled to the point where flow-feeding springs begin running. That takes more and more time as groundwater extraction lowers the water table more and more each drought year.

The large cold springs which characterize volcanic basins are why many salmon scientists believe Pacific Salmon have the best chance of persisting in volcanic watersheds. Fortunately the Klamath River has an abundance of volcanic watersheds, including the Shasta River Watershed and the entire Upper Basin beyond the Cascade Mountains.
As for the Scott, this year’s failed curtailment tells us that, during increasingly frequent drought years, irrigation must be curtailed much earlier if salmon are to have the minimum flows they need.

Fortunately, sustained rains came in late October, just in time for Scott River salmon. Chinook and coho are now able to get to their natal streams and, if spring flows are sufficient, we will see good salmon production from that basin next year. But we can’t count on Mother Nature to bail us out with timely storms. The State Water Board must curtail Scott Valley irrigation much earlier during drought years.

What Will the Future Hold?
The Shasta and Scott once produced the largest salmon runs in the entire Klamath River Basin. Those runs have dwindled due to insufficient flows which at times have prevented adult salmon from reaching their spawning grounds. Inadequate spring flows, along with poor water quality and disease, have also resulted in the loss of juvenile salmon born in those watersheds even before they reach the Klamath River on their way to the ocean.
Now, after years of neglect, the State Water Board has finally taken action to prevent further decimation of Shasta and Scott salmon during the current long drought. But, as tribal biologists are quick to point out, the minimum flows now being enforced are not sufficient to restore those runs to an abundance sufficient to meet tribal and sport fishing needs.

The State and North Coast Water Boards must continue to protect minimum flows during droughts but they should also go farther. They should adopt flow objectives for the Shasta and Scott watersheds that will provide the flows and water quality Chinook and coho salmon need not just to survive but to recover. That is what the North Group will be pushing for, along with tribal and fishing interests. Stay tuned.