Water diversions: hard times getting harder for life on the Shasta and Scott rivers

Mike Meyer
Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers
At the time when the flow at the mouth of the Shasta dropped on July 6, 2021 to 3.5 cubic feet per second, it was measured flowing at greater than 70 cfs 25 miles upstream. Between those two points are numerous irrigation pumps taking virtually all the river’s water and flooding it onto grass pastures.

Farmers, ranchers and others drawing water from the Shasta and Scott rivers may soon have to cut back because of the combination of drought and excessive diversions.

If an emergency regulation is approved this week by the state's Water Resources Control Board, the taking of water would be curtailed to ensure "sufficient flows" for the salmon migrating upriver for fall spawning.

The drought regulation amounts to a last resort for protecting the migrations this year after two of the worst years on record for precipitation, and the still-unsuccessful voluntary measures that have been taken, according to a draft of the regulation made available on Aug. 6.

“The current water year is the driest on record for the Shasta River," states the water board document. “The Scott River has become disconnected during July in the past two years.”

The water board will discuss the problems, then vote on the regulation when they meet on Tuesday and Wednesday, Aug. 17 and 18, via Zoom.

Why the Shasta and Scott rivers are important

State agencies and citizen groups have long sought voluntary actions by users regarding water diversions, with the hope of preserving and shoring up the aquatic habitat in the two rivers. Upgrades to the methods water is transported to cows and fields has also been a frequent target for improvement.

The hope for the Shasta River was to strengthen the habitat it continued to provide, in ever-diminishing fashion, during 150 years of diversions.

The largest run (Spring Chinook) disappeared after the shutoff of Dwinnell Dam and filling Lake Shastina in 1928.

However, Fall Chinook and coho salmon still swim from ocean waters up the Klamath into the lower Shasta River in the fall to leave their eggs in the gravel. The strength of the river's habitat is attributed to the cold, volcanic spring-fed water.

The migrating salmon die off after spawning as part of the natural process, but their descendants emerge from the gravel in winter and early spring. They spend time growing and maturing in quiet pools and side channels, then swim down to the ocean later in the year.

Historically, the Shasta contributed half of the Chinook in the Klamath before diversions, despite the fact that the volume of water it provided was 1% of the big river.

Now though, decreases in Chinook numbers and related harvest limitations over the past 15 years have resulted in the closure of "hundreds of miles of the coast to commercial fishing, multiple times," according to the draft. And Klamath River fisheries used by tribal people and commercial fishing companies "have also been closed multiple times in the past decade."

Toz Soto, Karuk Tribe fisheries biologist, said that though it is degraded, the Shasta River is still "the largest and most productive tributary of the Klamath, even today.

"For the amount of water in the Shasta, it supports a high number of fish. I really think that pound for pound, it produces more salmon than any other in world.

"But access to spring-fed water is critical."

Access means "a very constant source of water" that is deep and cold enough for the salmon to swim up-river. The volcanic springs from Mt. Shasta that feed the river provide the salmon and other fish with a rich mix of nutrient and mineral content, "a cocktail of nutrient-infused water," Soto said.

What's an 'excessive diversion'?

But voluntary actions for coexisting with the rivers have fallen below the effort required during drought to maintain minimum flows for salmon.

"Local efforts in the 2014-16 drought were insufficient to address the impacts of low flows and high temperatures." These impacts were "associated with ongoing diversions and extreme dry conditions", resulting in a population drop in "the strongest coho cohort," which "still has not recovered."

"Excessive diversions" occur when much or even most of the water diverted out of the rivers end up being wasted.

"A number of diversions in the Scott River and Shasta River watersheds involve surface diversions through unlined, porous ditches over a long distance that provide relatively small amounts of water for stock. This can result in removing several times the amount of water from the stream than is actually used for stock." The loss of water, the resolution states, "is not reasonable during this time."

How to attend the water board's meeting

The water board is expected to discuss ways to improve diversions during drought and other times to avoid wasting Shasta and Scott River water. The draft regulation describes these methods as short term trucking of water to the cows, using financial resources available to ranchers for long-term conservation – such as digging wells, lining ditches, and switching to piped diversions.

The curtailment action was set in motion in May when the governor directed the water board and CDFW to "evaluate minimum instream flows and other actions to protect salmon, steelhead, and other native fishes."

The agencies were directed to work "... with water users and other parties on voluntary measures to implement those actions."

Zoom meeting information can be found at https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/board_info/agendas/2021/aug/08_17-18_21_agenda_links.pdf.