Days after a fire-triggered landslide killed all fish in a 60-mile stretch of the Klamath River, ranchers defied state law by diverting flows from the Shasta River, the one of Klamath’s most important tributaries for endangered salmon.
“The Shasta River Water Association is illegally draining one of California’s largest salmon nurseries,” according to Karuk President Russell “Buster” Attebery. “After last week’s fish kill, all juvenile salmon in Klamath Basin need to be protected to ensure future migrations. We are horrified, we are angry and we expect accountability.
The diversion resulted in a 37% decrease in Shasta River flows, from 58 cubic feet per second to 36 in about 2 hours on August 17. Rapid declines in the flow of fish stranded along the shore leading to mortality.
As of August 2021, water users in the Shasta and Scott River Valleys of Siskiyou County are subject to a Reduction Order (Ordinance). The State Water Board crafted the ordinance after Governor Newsom declared a drought emergency in the spring of 2021.
The ordinance is an attempt to maintain bare minimum flows in two of the Klamath’s most productive tributaries for chinook salmon,” says Toz Soto, senior fisheries biologist at Karuk. “These flows reflect the best available science and represent the minimum amount of water fish need to survive in drought years.”
Salmon spend 3 to 5 years of their life as adults in the Pacific Ocean. The adults return to the freshwater streams in which they were born to mate and lay eggs. Juveniles hatch in the spring but normally spend a year in the river to grow large and strong enough to swim out to the ocean, repeating the cycle. The Shasta River is unique in its abundance of cold springs that flow year-round, making it an exceptional location for rearing juvenile salmon. Unfortunately, most of this clean, cold water is diverted to flood irrigated pastures.
“We demand and deserve an equitable and just approach to water sharing,” said Frankie Myers, Vice President of the Yurok Tribe. “For too long ranchers have done as they please without caring about those of us who live downstream. It is time that we manage the Klamath Basin as a whole together.
The tribes are evaluating all options to hold accountable those involved in illegal diversions.
On August 18, 2022, the State Water Board sent a letter to the Shasta River Water Association “…the SRWA’s right to water is curtailed under emergency drought regulations and the SRWA does not should not divert water from the Shasta River watershed.”
“The State Water Board must act immediately to hold these illegal diverters accountable. We know drought is hard on the farming community, but once those fish are gone, they’re gone forever,” Myers concludes.