If there’s one thing everyone in Siskiyou County can agree on, it’s that the Department of Fish and Game is convening a meeting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16, to talk about increasing water for coho salmon in the Scott and Shasta river watersheds.
Other than the meeting time and location – the Fort Jones Community Center, 11960 East St. – everything is probably subject to debate and disagreement. That’s because conflicts over water rights and endangered species run very deep in Siskiyou County.
The purpose of the meeting is to talk about “what we as a community can do for coho,” explained Curtis Milliron, a DFG biologist. The agency intends to ask landowners and growers to reduce stream diversions temporarily in certain locations for the health of coho. Low flows in some streams are causing water temperatures to rise, which is detrimental to coho. Some stretches of streams are drying up entirely. Water removed from waterways for agricultural irrigation can speed these drying conditions and changes in habitat, Milliron said.
“This is really trying to establish a relationship with the community that is not regulatory in nature,” Milliron said of Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re not the only ones who care about coho.”
Siskiyou County Supervisor Marcia Armstrong said DFG is likely to get a mixed reaction at best on Tuesday evening. Hard-line property rights activists, such as those in the group Protect our Water, urge people not to work with DFG or any government agency, she said. Meanwhile, the local Farm Bureau and old-time farming families are typically cooperative, said Armstrong, a former Farm Bureau and Cattlemen’s Association executive director. She expects some water users will volunteer to help the fish.
“I think some people will quietly sign up for this,” Armstrong said. “It’s coming to the end of hay season. Most of them are going to stop irrigating anyway.”
Armstrong is quick to defend Scott Valley landowners and growers as responsible stewards. “I know there are people who say it’s the irrigators who are drying up the creeks. But that’s a political ploy,” she said, emphasizing that the earliest settlers noted the seasonal nature of local creeks.
The environmental group Klamath Riverkeeper recently blamed irrigators for drying up Patterson Creek, a tributary to the Scott River. However, Sari Sommerstrom, executive director of the nonprofit group Scott River Water Trust, said that Patterson Creek diversions above Highway 3 ceased on July 7 and that the current conditions on Patterson Creek are natural.
“No one likes to see dying fish in stranded pools, but one can’t fight natural conditions either,” Sommerstrom wrote in an email to water trust members. “No one should be surprised that some sections of streams dry up every year in Scott Valley.”
Sommerstrom questioned the timing of the DFG’s meeting, because 2011 has been a wet year and because the 927 adult coho counted in the Scott River watershed this year is a strong number that is in line with statistics from the 1960s.
In fact, 2011 has seen above-average rain and snow, with precipitation falling nearly until July. But Milliron said, “The timing of this meeting isn’t because it’s a wet year, it’s because we need to act now. We’ve got a month and a half where it’s really going to get tough on coho.”
Sommerstrom, whose four-year-old organization pays irrigators to keep water in streams for the sake of coho and Chinook salmon and for steelhead trout, characterized the situation differently. She said conditions for fish are better than they have been in several years, and that the main stem of the Scott is in no danger of drying up during coming weeks. She also questioned whether any creek in California has more coho than the Scott and its tributaries are supporting this year.
“This is an artificial crisis. It is not a real crisis,” Sommerstrom charged. “I’m tired of all the finger pointing.”
Carolyn Pimentel, executive director of the Siskiyou County Resources Conservation District, said irrigators have already provided a great deal of voluntary cooperation on fisheries issues, and they might not be in the mood to give more.
“People are pretty leery of agencies, particularly DFG,” Pimentel said. “People may not be going into this meeting with real open minds.”
Coho salmon in the Scott and Shasta river watersheds are listed as “threatened” under both state and federal endangered species law. Since biologists began monitoring in 2001, coho populations have declined precipitously, according to the DFG. Maintaining the native Coho population in the Scott and Shasta river watersheds is important for genetic diversity, Milliron said. Importing coho even from lower in the Klamath River watershed may become necessary. But, he said, “First we need to preserve locally adapted stocks that have the genetic makeup to survive conditions particular to the Scott and Shasta systems.”
Like other salmon species, Coho spend the beginning and very end of their lives in cold freshwater streams and rivers, and most of their adult lives in the ocean. Thus, healthy freshwater spawning and rearing grounds are crucial to the species’ survival. According to DFG, more than 900 coho spawned in the Scott River and its tributaries this year, a significant increase over recent years.
There are three situations DFG hopes to address with the voluntary cuts in stream diversions. In some places, the agency would like to ensure water continues to flow where coho are now living. In other locations, the agency wants to ensure good water quality for a short period of time while the fish move to a better location. Coho are very sensitive to water conditions and typically recognize when it’s time to seek a better, colder water. Finally, the agency would like to ensure that some areas, where fish could get isolated, have water long enough for DFG to capture the fish and move them to safe locations. Already, DFG has captured and relocated nearly 3,000 juvenile coho from Kidder and Patterson creeks.
Milliron conceded that DFG probably should have conducted Tuesday’s meeting last month, before the situation became urgent. Despite the timing, the agency would like to establish long-term relationships, he said.
Paul Shigley is a freelance journalist based in Western Shasta County, CA. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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