The Scott Valley once hosted throngs of salmon, steelhead and lamprey, serving as one of the key nurseries to Klamath River fish runs. Today, chronic dewatering of the river to grow alfalfa nearly year round has dramatically impaired the Scott River’s habitat values and imperiled many runs of fish including ESA listed coho salmon. The result is lost economic opportunities for tribes as well as sport and commercial fishermen who contribute significantly to the regional economy when fish are abundant. Also at risk are the cultural practices of tribes that rely on these fish for spiritual as well as physical sustenance.
Several state and federal agencies have public trust obligations and other legal obligations to protect fisheries, yet have failed for decades to strike a reasonable balance between irrigation and fisheries. Some environmental laws are indeed difficult to enforce because the legal standards are written in vague language. However, water rights are not vague – they are quantifiable and easily measured. So why can’t the U.S. Forest Service see to it that its water right on the Scott – granted for the explicit purpose of protecting fisheries – is met?
Water rights on the Scott River were adjudicated in 1980.The adjudication explicitly describes how much water each user gets. Interestingly, this adjudication considers the water needs of fish and grants a water right to the U.S. Forest Service to ensure flows are adequate. This water right varies by month, but in the dry months calls for 30 cubic feet per second (c.f.s.) of flow (imagine 30 basketballs passing a specified point in one second to get a feel for how much water this is). The problem is that this water right has rarely been met in the key months of August and September since 1980.
Before the adjudication, it was rare for flows to ever drop below 30 c.f.s. In fact between 1942 and 1980, the Scott River dropped below 30 c.f.s. on average only 5.6 days a year. Between 1980 and 2009, the flows dipped below 30 c.f.s. on average 35 days a year.
This year, the river has been below 30 c.f.s. since August 3. Flows dropped as low as 1 c.f.s. in 2009, and down to 4 c.f.s. in August of 2012. Even now, as temperatures cool and moisture increases moving into fall, the Scott River measures at about 22 c.f.s., according to real-time flow data from the U.S. Geological Service which maintains a gage near the bottom of Scott Valley.
It’s important to note that 30 c.f.s. is significantly lower than what fisheries biologists recommend for the river. The only published study on flow needs for Scott River fish came from California Department of Fish and Game in 1974, which recommended 192 c.f.s. at this time of year. It’s also of note that precipitation patterns have not significantly changed over the years of record, so changing weather patterns are not to blame. What has changed? The number of wells drilled in Scott Valley. Prior to 1980, there were 406 wells, of which 99 were specified as irrigation wells. As of 2010, there were 790 wells in Scott Valley, 172 of which were specified as irrigation wells. Because they were drilled outside the “zone of adjudication,” these new wells are not regulated and not part of the adjudication. That is to say the existing adjudication no longer describes water use in the valley since these new wells effectively suck water out from under existing water rights holders including the Forest Service. This fact has recently been documented by a groundwater analysis by the Karuk Tribe.
It’s time for the U.S. Forest Service to act. The Forest Service should immediately file a complaint with the California Water Board regarding its unmet water rights. The U.S. Forest Service has a responsibility to protect its water right like any other water rights holder in the West. If the agency doesn’t do so, river and coastal communities will suffer the loss of economic opportunities and all Californians will lose an iconic part of our cultural identity. We urge the public to contact the Forest Service and demand that it fulfill its obligations to the public and protect our fisheries resources.
Region 5 Forester Randy Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org; (707) 562-8737 (707) 562-8737