The Scott River Basin was once a major producer of chinook and coho salmon, and could be again. However, agriculture in the Scott River Valley diverts and consumes a lot of the water that would otherwise flow down the Scott River and its tributaries, creating and sustaining salmon habitat.
Completed in 1980, the Scott River Adjudication affirmed and quantified water rights, including the right of the U.S. Forest Service—which manages national forest land above and below the agricultural Scott River Valley, to river flows below Scott Valley in order to sustain salmon and other fish. Unfortunately, the Forest Service river flow right has not been met in late summer and fall in most recent years, including in good rainfall and snowpack years like 2017. Whenever there is a dry fall, as is the case this year, and the in-stream flow right has not been met, migrating adult chinook salmon have often not been able to reach their natal spawning grounds.
The 2017 Chinook Salmon run
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) reports that, as of October 25, only 1,904 adult Chinook salmon had been counted at the Department’s fish counting weir in the Scott River Canyon below the Scott River Valley. Most, if not all, Scott River Chinook should have passed the weir by that date. In the 38 years since CDFW began monitoring the Scott River’s Chinook run, fewer than 2,000 spawners have been counted in only seven other years.
With so few spawning adults returning, it is particularly important that those chinook which do make it back to the Scott River actually get to spawn in the streams where they were born. A recent check to see if this year’s spawners could access the Scott Valley’s prime spawning grounds revealed distressing news.
Not only were some of the best spawning tributaries not accessible, the Scott River itself was dewatered just below the Farmer’s Ditch stream diversion—which means chinook can not access many miles of good spawning habitat in the Upper Scott as well as the River’s East and South Forks. Streamflow at the USGS gauge below Scott Valley on October 2 was less than half the 200 cubic feet per second to which the Forest Service, and the fish, have a right.
This year’s inadequate flows and dewatered stream segments are not natural; rather, they are the result of ranches and cattle corporations diverting water to flood irrigate pastures, a common practice in the Scott River Valley during dry falls. Irrigating pastureland is legal under the Scott River and Shakleford Creek Stream Adjudications during the irrigation season, but that season ends on October 15 and October 31, respectively. Ranchers can still legally divert a small amount of water for stock watering after October 31, but they are not supposed to divert water for irrigation.
Unfortunately, Scott Valley livestock producers have once again continued irrigating pastureland after all irrigation should have ended, denying Scott River the flows to which the Forest Service, and the fish, have a right. Denying those flows also denies chinook salmon the chance to spawn in their birth streams, which in turn reduces the production of young salmon. Sustained over time, the illegal dewatering of Scott River and major tributaries is driving Scott River Chinook salmon toward extinction.
Where is the Forest Service and where are the regulators?
In this situation, Forest Service officials should demand that out-of-season irrigation ends and that the flow rights of salmon are met. Unfortunately, in spite of numerous and persistent requests from federal tribes and environmental groups, Patricia Grantham, supervisor of the Klamath National Forest, has not been willing to insist that the Forest Service flow right is met. That unwillingness is not only driving Scott River Chinook toward extinction, it is negatively impacting coho salmon as well.
California’s State Water Resources Control Board is supposed to assure that water rights are honored. In the case of Scott River, Water Board officials should be in Scott Valley checking to make sure that out-of-season irrigation is not occurring. Unfortunately, absent a demand from Forest Service officials, the State Water Board has been unwilling to curtail out-of-season pasture irrigation.
You can help!
Unless and until the Forest Service right to flows in Scott River is honored, Scott Valley Chinook salmon will continue to slide toward extinction and coho salmon production will remain depressed. If you care about wild salmon, please contact Klamath Forest Supervisor Patricia Grantham and ask her to demand that the Forest Service right to flows in Scott River is honored. Patricia Grantham, Supervisor,
Klamath National Forest
1711 South Main Street
Yreka, CA 96097-9549