California Renews Emergency Drought Regulations for the Scott and Shasta Rivers
Collaborative Effort Seeks to Make Regulations Permanent.
In 2021, California’s Governor proclaimed a State of Emergency due to drought for 50 (of 52) counties, including Siskiyou County, and renewed the proclamation in March of this year. Today, more than 95% of Siskiyou County is under extreme drought conditions. Local communities have already started restricting use of municipal water sources for outdoor watering. And the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) will continue to impose emergency drought regulations initiated last fall for water rights holders and water users in the Shasta River and Scott River water sheds.
Restrictions on water diversion from the Scott and Shasta rivers and some groundwater extraction were imposed last August to ensure minimum flows of water to protect threatened Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast coho salmon, culturally and commercially significant fall-run Chinook salmon, and culturally significant steelhead. These fish species require the cold clean water of these rivers, emanating from glacier melt and springs fed by Mount Shasta’s snowpack and snowpack from the Klamath Mountains, for reproduction and survival. Whereas farmers and ranchers in the Scott and Shasta Valleys have benefited from these diversions in the past, it has been at the expense of the riparian ecosystems of these tributaries to the Klamath River and the additional cultures and commerce they support.
Adequate cold, clean water is required for the fish to swim from the ocean upstream via the Klamath River to spawn: the young hatchlings require cold, clean water for as much as a year as they grow before moving downstream to the ocean. This cycle of fish moving from the ocean up through the rivers brings nutrients from the ocean to inland areas and is essential for the healthy river ecosystems.
Given the recent tragedy on the Klamath River, where heavy rains falling in the McKinney wildfire region sent debris flows of rock, down timber, and charred soil into the river leading to a mass fish kill, protecting healthy spawning habitat in the Scott and Shasta Rivers has become even more essential to facilitate recovery of those decimated fish species.
For years prior to the emergency regulations, the Scott and Shasta Rivers had been severely impacted by low in-stream flows as a result of the over-allocation of water rights via adjudications going back decades, increases in unregulated and unmonitored groundwater extraction, illegal diversions, increased frequency and severity of drought years, and the decades-long lack of adequate attention to this mounting crisis by the agencies tasked with managing the rivers.
The result has been that the rivers’ ecosystems have been so compromised that Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast coho salmon are listed as threatened under the state and federal Endangered Species Act, and fish populations that are vital for commercial and recreational fishing industries and of significant cultural importance for California Tribes have being decimated.
The Governor’s emergency proclamation gave the State Water Resources Control Board the authority to curtail diversions from the rivers and regulate groundwater pumping to achieve minimum in-stream flows determined by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
W.A.T.E.R. has been attending public hearings and meetings of the State Water Resources Control Board regarding updates to the existing emergency regulations. We also submitted comment letters of support as the SWRCB has worked through the process of developing the emergency regulations. Many ranchers and farmers are working hard to adapt to the imposed regulations and working with SWRCB staff to develop voluntary strategies for conserving water. However, at the June 21, 2022 meeting of the SWRCB, where the regulations were renewed for another year, it was disheartening to hear some of the farmers and ranchers say that the changes they are making are not sustainable. Whereas we sympathize with those who are now getting the short straw, we fear this is a harbinger for what will happen when the emergency drought conditions are lifted—a likely surge of diversions that deplete the river flows below what is needed to sustain the river ecosystems--as occurred for decades before the emergency regulations were put in place.
For now, the in-stream flows will be protected through August of 2023 unless the drought emergency is rescinded. The necessary and ultimate solution is for the SWRCB to make the emergency regulations and ongoing monitoring and enforcement PERMANENT to ensure minimum in-stream flows that support the recovery of the rivers’ ecosystems including the fish and the cultures they support.
In an unprecedented cooperative effort, a consortium including representatives from the Yurok and Karuk Tribes, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, University of Nevada, Reno, and Friends or the Shasta River has assembled to expand the only in-stream flow study for the lower Shasta River to create an updated, scientifically valid, fully defensible in-stream flow regime with the goal of its permanent adoption by the SWRCB before the emergency curtailments end next year.
You can support this groundbreaking effort with a donation to Friends of the Shasta River (www.shastariver.org/donate/).
For more information about the issues of the Shasta River watershed, we recommend the Friends of the Shasta River website (www.shastariver.org).
Information about the SWRCB’s emergency drought efforts can be found here: (https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/drought/scott_shasta_rivers/).