By Mike Meyer
A Siskiyou County Reporter
After ignoring the state's curtailment of Shasta River water diversions last week, a local irrigation group paid a steep price but achieved its goal, and then just as suddenly turned off its pumps and resumed curtailment on Wednesday.
"We did it to keep our cows alive. But we're off now, we're not diverting, said Rick Lemos of the Shasta River Water Association Board of Directors, yesterday.
An online reading of the Yreka USGS gage on Wednesday night showed a low flow of 14 cubic feet per second. As of Thursday morning, the flow had risen to 42 cfs. The state's drought-mandated minimum flow for August is 50 cfs.
The state Water Resources Control Board set minimum flows for the river last September because of a record spell of drought during the past few years. Farmers and ranchers who divert water to their fields had to cut back, and in some instances, shut the water off completely.
The state's action was taken to prevent the disappearance of the river's habitat for Chinook and Coho salmon and other aquatic species. Minimum flows represent the least amount of water that newly spawned salmon eggs and juvenile salmon need for a fighting chance at survival.
During 170 years of diversions, Shasta Valley farmers and ranchers, developed ditches and other methods to re-route the river's water. At the same time, the numbers of salmon returning to the Shasta to lay eggs in river-bed gravel dropped to a fraction of historic numbers.
The cold, mineral rich spring water from Mount Shasta and runoff from the Eddy mountains made the Shasta River one of the premier salmon spawning and rearing rivers in the world. In historic times the Shasta accounted for nearly 50% of the salmon in the Klamath River, while its water volume contributed just 1% of the Klamath's volume. In those times, hydrologists surmise, minimum summer flows in Shasta River stayed above 150 cfs.
When SRWA resumed diverting water from the river last week, the water board reports that the flow at Yreka gage was lower by "approxiately 30 cfs," down from 46.8 cfs the day before. The minimum flow for August set by the water board is 50 cfs.
"What little I can tell you is, we had to do this," Lemos said of his district ignoring the curtailment last week
"We'd run out of water everywhere. We had 5,000-6,000 head of cattle in our district, we had to fill some ponds."
"We got the stock water, we can get by now."
Harsh realities, both below and above the river's surface, are not lost on Lemos. "We know we can't dry the entire river up. We don't want to kill the fish."
"We got fined and penalized. Most of the cattle will be sold. I mean, we're basically out of business."
SRWA has a water right priority date of November, 1912, making it a junior rights holder. As a large diverter, it had been bearing the brunt of the drought curtailment since it began in September 2021. "Our district is eating 90% of the curtailment," Lemos said last month.
On August 2, the state extended curtailment to water rights holders with priority dates to 1885. This was done to insure that minimum flows would be maintained, as the effects of drought and resulting river levels worsen.
But Lemos, who has ranched and managed diversion pumps for 63 years, said the addition of more senior rights holders didn't relieve SRWA's burden. "Hardly any of the rights holders after 1885 were active diverters."
When asked, Lemos said the water-rights priority system needs to be improved.
"The law should be applied equally. A fair way to (manage curtailment) is by (requiring) a percentage from everybody. Groundwater shooed also be included in the curtailment."