A coalition of tribes, conservationists, and commercial fishing groups today criticized a California Farm Bureau attempt to block resource agency requests that irrigators report water use and potentially obtain permits to withdraw water from the Shasta and Scott rivers. The bureau's action comes a day after new court filings by the groups accusing the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) of violating landmark state laws protecting struggling salmon in both watersheds.
Scientists have recently reported alarming declines of threatened coho populations in these two key salmon spawning tributaries of the Klamath River. Last summer, the Scott and Shasta garnered headlines statewide after irrigation withdrawals caused record low flows and dewatered stretches of both rivers as thousands of salmon swam upriver to spawn. Peer-reviewed science shows that steadily increasing irrigation withdrawals are largely to blame for no-flow and record low-flow conditions in these rivers. Despite the ongoing ecological collapse, water use along the two rivers has remained almost wholly unregulated due to irrigator opposition and CDFG inaction.
"It's disappointing that the Farm Bureau is opposing even the most minimal, initial efforts by CDFG to introduce some accountability for public resource use in these two watersheds," said Erica Terrence of Klamath Riverkeeper. "If we want to have any hope of reversing the decline in coho, we need to leave behind this kind of irresponsible opposition to any real resource management in the Shasta and Scott. This sort of bullying is a big reason why the state has failed to limit the water diversions as well as the excessive, unregulated groundwater pumping that fragment salmon habitat, cause poor water quality, and block access to food sources for fish."
"Instead of acting constructively to address the unsustainable practices driving coho to extinction, the Farm Bureau is just trying to stall and tie things up with lawsuits," said Scott Greacen of EPIC. "They are playing games while our salmon disappear."
According to preliminary data from video fish counts on the Scott and Shasta rivers done by CDFG in 2009, only 81 coho returned to the Scott River, while in the Shasta a mere nine coho returned, reportedly all of them male. Biologists also reported that two out of thee classes of coho in the Shasta River are functionally extinct. These devastatingly low returns continue an alarming population decline in watersheds that once provided some of the best habitat anywhere in the Klamath Basin.
The coalition of groups, represented by Earthjustice, went to court last year to oppose the CDFG's efforts to issue Watershed-Wide Incidental Take Permits (ITPs) for the Scott and Shasta. This week, the groups added new complaints in the case, alleging the agency violated the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) while undertaking the controversial program providing blanket permits for agricultural practices that kill salmon or destroy habitat in these watersheds.
The ITPs at issue would provide legal cover for continued de-watering of the Scott and Shasta while allowing illegal dams, water withdrawals, and livestock grazing in stream beds to continue unchecked. ITPs for coho salmon are required under law because the species is listed as threatened with extinction. Coho populations in the Klamath Basin have declined to roughly one to two percent of their historic abundance, with the Scott and Shasta rivers among their most important remaining habitat.
"The CDFG's findings that these permits will not jeopardize the continued existence of coho salmon lack any rational support," said Wendy Park, attorney for Earthjustice. "And when new information arose concerning the population and viability of coho within these areas, the CDFG failed to prepare a supplemental analysis taking the new information into account. We believe both of these actions violated the law."
A 2004 National Academy of Sciences report suggested that curbing agricultural water use and habitat degradation in the Scott and Shasta watersheds are critical for restoring Klamath River coho salmon. Indeed, the Shasta River was once the most productive salmon stream, for its size, in the state of California.
"The Farm Bureau seems to have adopted a scorched-earth policy here," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), representing commercial fishermen devastated by recent salmon fishing closures. "Water is a public resource that also supports California's valuable salmon fisheries and all the jobs those salmon support. It only makes sense for a public agency to keep track of the public's water, and to take steps to minimize the impacts of water diversions on fisheries and other public resources."