A new chapter in Klamath River Water Wars


Two years ago High Country News’ cover boldly proclaimed Peace on the Klamath. The reference was to the Klamath River, where a collection of federal and state agencies, irrigators, fishing organizations and environmental groups had announced an agreement which the article claimed would end the river's water wars and result in a future characterized by harmony and collaboration on water issues.

Subsequent events indicate that the resulting Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) has itself resulted in conflict and controversy. Two environmental groups – Waterwatch of Oregon and Oregon Wild - were expelled from negotiations; they have been joined by the Hoopa Tribe and the Northcoast Environmental Center (NEC) in opposing the final deal. Both the Hoopa Tribe and the NEC participated in negotiations until the end but decided the final deal is not in their or the Klamath River’s interest. 

Also opposing the deal are Siskiyou County and many local politicians and non-federal irrigators in the Upper Klamath Basin. They allege that the KBRA favors those irrigators and other interests which get water via the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project over other irrigators in the Basin.

The KBRA has led to an end – at least for now – of lawsuits challenging the impact of the Klamath Project on threatened Coho salmon and endangered Kuptu and Tsuam – two sucker species found in the Upper Klamath Basin. The National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation are now free to manage ESA-listed species and the water they depend on without interference from the courts and pesky environmentalists.

But the end of ESA lawsuits has not ended the Klamath Water Wars. Instead – as predicted by some Klamath observers – the locus of water battles has shifted from the Upper Basin and the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project to private irrigation in the Shasta and Scott River Valleys located further downriver.

In recent weeks a coalition of tribes, fishing organizations and environmental groups led by Klamath Riverkeeper and the California Farm Bureau have each filed lawsuits focused on irrigation in the Shasta and Scott Rivers. Both lawsuits aim to prevent the California Department of Fish and Game from implementing policies and programs in the two agricultural valleys.  The Klamath Riverkeeper coalition says those policies will allow the continued extirpation of Coho salmon from the watersheds; the Farm Bureau says the state agency is improperly seeking to extend its authority over water rights. The best reports on the lawsuits I’ve found are on the Capital Press and Bay Area Indy Media web sites.  

Ultimately the dueling lawsuits aim to either reversing the dewatering of the Shasta and Scott Rivers or to prevent changes in water management in the two Klamath tributaries which enable the ongoing dewatering.

Approximately 30 percent of total Klamath River Basin irrigation occurs in the Shasta and Scott tributaries. Flows in both rivers have been trending steadily downward since the 1970s. In 2008 a peer reviewed scientific study found that over 50 percent of the decrease in Scott River flows can not be explained by changes in precipitation and snowpack. According to the study, the shrinking flows are likely primarily the result of a doubling of irrigation since the 70s mainly through increased groundwater pumping. Groundwater pumping is not regulated in California unless counties elect to do the regulation. Politics in Siskiyou County - where the Shasta and Scott Rivers are located - are dominated by agricultural interests; the county has shown no interest in regulating agricultural groundwater pumping.

A shift in focus by salmon advocates to the Shasta and Scott has accelerated since a blog focused on Klamath River issues (which I write) published photos showing a substantially dewatered Scott River last year even as Fall Chinook and Coho salmon were attempting to reach spawning grounds in the agricultural valley above. Klamath Riverkeeper documented a similar dewatering on the Shasta River.

Fisheries biologists tell us that the Shasta and Scott River Basins were once the largest producers of salmon in the Klamath River Basin. Both the Shasta and Scott were  strongholds for spring Chinook and Coho salmon. Spring Chinook are now extinct in the two watersheds and Coho are on the brink of extinction. Last year only 9 adult Coho returned to the Shasta River, all were males. Eighty one adult Coho returned to the Scott River last Fall; a spawning population of at least 500 individuals is believed to be the minimum spawning population necessary to maintain the genetic diversity which is key to long term survival. Klamath River Coho have continued to decline even though they were listed as “threatened” pursuant to the federal ESA in 1997 and the California ESA in 2004.      

Klamath River studies to determine how much water salmon need to survive have focused on the Klamath mainstem and have ignored the Shasta and Scott. The decision to limit flow studies to the mainstem was political. It was made years ago by federal and state agencies in collaboration with Klamath River Basin tribes.  The public was not involved or informed of the decision.

The lack of a Klamath River flow analysis that includes major tributaries with big agricultural diversions – the Shasta, Scott and Trinity Rivers – has been criticized by the National Research Council – one of the nation’s top science organizations. An earlier NRC report criticized Klamath River water and fish managers for ignoring the Shasta and Scott Rivers when seeking to improve conditions for threatened Coho salmon.

In spite of these recommendations from top independent scientists, there are currently no plans for a basin-wide flow analysis. Neither the environmental nor the fishing communities are pushing for the needed studies to be undertaken. In part this is a result of the KBRA which used the previously flawed flow study to allocate Klamath River water.  Those allocations are now memorialized in a new Biological Opinion for Klamath Coho which reflects water allocations negotiated in the KBRA. The new opinion provides higher Klamath River flows in spring but lower flows in the summer and fall in both wet and dry years.  

Klamath River fish and water management since publication of Peace on the River demonstrates that detente on water issues is not easily achieved in the West. Journalists should be more skeptical, particularly when – as was the case on the Klamath – peace negotiations occur behind closed doors, are dominated by federal and state agencies and exclud key stakeholders. Nevertheless, most Western journalists appear unable to express skepticism in the face of any agreement which claims to have resolved conflict between water users and the environment.

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