(CN) — The fight to maintain water levels in Northern California rivers for fish received a push after the Karuk tribe and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations filed a petition with the California Water Resources Control Board seeking to permanently enforce minimum flows on the Scott River.
Located in Siskiyou County, California, the Scott River is a 60-mile tributary of the Klamath River and home to several trout and salmon species, including some of the last Southern Oregon-Northern California coho salmon – a species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1997.
“The fate of this population of coho salmon depends on whether or not we keep water in the Scott River,” said Karuk Tribe Council Member Troy Hockaday in a statement. “If we don’t act immediately, we could see this run of coho salmon disappear from the Earth in a few short years.”
The petition filed Monday is not unlike the tribe’s petition filed in 2021, which spurred the state’s water board to adopt drought-related emergency regulations that set a minimum flow standard for the same river.
Using minimum flow rates recommended by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the regulations allowed the water board to curtail surface water diversions and groundwater pumping when flows dropped too low. Upon adoption of the regulation, the board almost immediately curtailed flows from the river, and again issued curtailments when flows dropped in July 2022 — an order that remained in place until the heavy rainstorms this past winter.
The petitioners say the regulations also imposed restrictions on winter livestock divisions, which can use large amounts of water delivered through leaky ditches. Such diversions, the petitioners say, can completely dry streams, stranding fish.
But under California water code, such regulations for river flows can only take effect during extremely dry years or during a declared drought emergency, which Governor Gavin Newsom did in August 2022.
“The regulation requested in this petition would fulfill the governor’s strategy by empowering the state board to curtail water rights in all years when low flows threaten vulnerable species, not just declared drought years,” the petitioners write.
Since enacting the tribe’s original petition, success of the curtailments had been mixed, the petitioners say. According to the petition, 2021 curtailments only took place after most diversions had happened, and in July 2022 flows in the Scott River plummeted despite the region’s late spring rains.
“By the time curtailments were in place, it may have been too late. Flows bottomed out around 8 cubic feet per second and stayed there well into the fall,” the petitioners say.
Even with wet years like 2023, Fisherman’s Association director Glenn Spain said summer flows on the Scott River are much lower today than during drier summers before the expansion of groundwater pumping that began in the 1980s.
“Dewatering streams like the Scott is a key factor in the decline of California’s salmon fisheries and it has cost commercial salmon fishing families thousands of jobs,” Spain said in a statement.
But despite regulatory shortfalls, the petitioners also note there are signs that curtailments and livestock restrictions benefitted the river and its habitats. In 2021, for example, spring outmigration numbers for coho and Chinook salmon were strong after the region’s dry spell and while flows in Fort Jones, California, did not increase until late fall, parts of the river’s mainstem and its tributaries slowly refilled and reconnected throughout September and October.
“A September rainstorm aided this process,” the petitioners say, adding that a possible explanation is that the curtailments maintained groundwater levels slightly higher, allowing quicker stream response to cooler weather and precipitation.
“All eyes will be on the spring outmigration monitoring to see if coho were able to survive the summer," the petitioners say.
The state board now has 30 days to schedule a hearing or deny the petition in writing with an explanation. Should the board adopt the petition, it’s sure to draw resistance from those who rely on the rivers for personal and agricultural usage.
This past August, the Karuk and Yurok tribes blew the whistle on ranchers in Northern California who defied state orders to curtail water usage by diverting flow from the Shasta River. The tribes say the diversion led to a 37% decrease in Shasta River flows, from 58 cubic feet per second to 36 in two hours — a move that came days after a fire-induced mudslide killed tens of thousands of fish in a 60-mile reach of the Klamath River.
Similarly, in 2021, a group of water agencies overseeing supply from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta sued to freeze the state’s emergency drought regulations, claiming the sweeping water curtailments were based on faulty data and caused permanent damage to pricey fruit and nut orchards.
“We have received pushback from every effort we have made to protect Scott River fisheries,” Karuk natural resources consultant Craig Tucker said in an email.
A spokesperson for the north coast region of the Water Resources Control Board did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.
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