Record low flows and strong fall Chinook salmon run could spell disaster on Klamath tributary

The following is a press release received from Craig Tucker (of the Yurok Tribe) and the Klamath Riverkeeper. It’s not what you’d call great news: Excessive agricultural surface and groundwater withdrawals – and the willingness of state and federal agencies to look the other way – are imperiling salmon and steelhead populations in these two major spawning tributaries of the Klamath River:

Thursday, September 24, 2009

High numbers of fall Chinook salmon returning to the Shasta River are coming home to record low flows and extremely hot weather this week, creating ideal conditions for a large-scale fish kill in the Shasta River. Biologists and water managers with state and federal agencies are monitoring the situation closely as irrigators continue to maximize water withdrawals through the late September heat wave.

“We need to get more water in the river immediately,” said Erica Terence of Klamath Riverkeeper. “Unfortunately, the fish are moving much quicker than the resource managers on the Scott and Shasta Rivers this year.” The USGS realtime streamflow gage on the Shasta River shows record low flows for the last several days, as it has much of the summer. Temperatures are forecasted to be in the 90s through the weekend.

With 1,319 fish past the California Department of Fish and Game’s counting station in the Shasta River canyon as of Sept 22nd, this year’s fall Chinook run is shaping up to be among the largest in the last 20 years on the Shasta. Whether the fish are able to migrate and spawn throughout the basin, or whether the fish turn up dead, will be determined by the extent of irrigation deliveries over the next week. CDFG’s fish counting station on the adjacent Scott River is not yet operational.

“Unfettered agricultural diversions are playing Russian roulette with salmon, and it’s the commercial fishermen and Tribal people downriver who will deal with the consequences,” said Terence. She noted that the sacrifices of commercial salmon fishermen, who face a season closure caused by low returns to the Sacramento River, may be in vain if river conditions do not allow a successful spawning season.

Klamath Riverkeeper is surveying the Shasta River for fish mortalities and is monitoring locations where fish are currently holding in deeper, colder pools. Representatives of multiple organizations and agencies are also keeping tabs on the situation. Unofficial reports indicate at least 7 dead adult Chinook have been documented in the river at this time and fisheries managers and advocates would like to avoid an increase in that number.

Agricultural diversions and groundwater pumping have de-watered the Scott and reduced the Shasta to a trickle for much of the summer. Both tributaries were once abundant salmon producers and are recognized by scientists as key priorities in the effort to restore Klamath basin salmon. Terence added, “We cannot rely on dam removal alone to fix this watershed, it’s time to address the steadily increasing agricultural demand on the Klamath’s water.” The Shasta River was once the most productive salmon stream, for its size, in the state of California. Peer-reviewed science on the adjacent Scott River has demonstrated that decreasing flows cannot be fully explained by climate change.

This year’s record low flows come as CDFG is releasing its final Watershed Wide Incidental Take Permit Program for the Scott and Shasta basins – a controversial and potentially precedent-setting project that would widen allowances for coho kills from agricultural de-watering and other impacts. Klamath Riverkeeper is joining with other salmon allies to oppose the program. Terence said, “With conditions deteriorating for fish every year on the Scott and Shasta, CDFG should be proposing programs that expand protections for fish, not destroy them as the watershed wide permits would do.” She added, “the Scott and Shasta are now growing more alfalfa than they are fish – and its time for that to change.”

Irrigation season ends on the Scott and Shasta Rivers during the month of October.

I’d love to add a poignant twist to all this, but in truth, I’m too pissed off to do so. The politcal environment up here is so backwards (those who participated in our Stream Access/Land Use Planning Nightmare know the County Board of Supervisors would happily see every last fish disappear from the area), and it seems the agencies charged with protecting wildlife are willing to turn a blind eye in efforts to maintain good working relationships with irrigators.

How’s that working for us?

Just so you can watch the water levels dwindle in near realtime, here’s the USGS Streamflow Gage for the lower Shasta River can be found here.

More information on this summer’s Shasta and Scott flow crisis can be found here.