Opinion, Scott Valley

Valley of Denial

Opinion: Submitted Letter By Felice Pace
Klamath, CA

Three women who are closely associated with irrigated agriculture and groundwater extraction in the Scott River Valley recently published a white paper which essentially claims that Scott Valley Irrigators have been unjustly required to cut back groundwater extraction in order to help Scott River Coho salmon. In a new KlamBlog post KlamBlog editor Felice Pace debunks their claims. 

The new post – Same Old Sad and Selfish: Scott Valley Ag Folks don’t want to do their part to help Coho survive – can be found at this link where you can also leave a comment. 


Copy / Paste of KlamBlog so you can read on SNN website!

SUNDAY, MAY 8, 2022

Same Old Sad and Selfish: Scott Valley Ag Folks don’t want to do their part to help Coho survive

by Felice Pace

Drought Emergency Water Regulations, enacted in the midst of an historic drought and intended to give those Coho Salmon which spawn and rear in the Scott River Basin a chance to survive, are not needed by the Coho and will needlessly devastate Scott Valley farmers and ranchers if implemented. That is the message of the Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance, a new organization which, according to its website, formed to “be a unified voice communicating on behalf of local farmers and ranchers, spreading accurate information about Scott Valley’s agricultural producers, the Scott River, and its fish.” Their vision is to “debunk the myths that are driving the state’s severe water regulations.” 

So far the organization has published what it calls a “white paper” titled “WHY THE STATE WATER BOARD’S 2021-2022 FLOW REGULATION IS NOT NEEDED FOR COHO SALMON IN THE SCOTT RIVER.” The organization’s “mission’ and “vision” are driven by the white paper’s assertion that providing emergency flows to help Scott River Coho is an “existential threat” to farmers and ranchers in Scott Valley. 

The Scott River is a Klamath River watershed and, according to the consensus of fisheries biologists and restorations, the valley and canyon sections of the Scott are key to the survival and recovery of Klamath River Coho Salmon. Not so according to the Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance and its white paper.

 Klamath River Sub-basins with the Scott in pink

I lived in the Scott River Valley from 1976 until 2002. I still spend time there and I’ve been involved in water and fish issues there since the 1980s. When I decode the words of the new water alliance and read its white paper I see a determination to use selective information to support a preordained conclusion: that irrigated agriculture in the Scott River Valley has no impact on Coho or Chinook Salmon and is, in fact, the highest and best use of Scott River water.

The Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance  is the creation of three accomplished Scott Valley ladies: Theodora Johnson, Lauren Sweezy and Sari Sommarstrom. All three have lived in the Scott Valley most or all of their lives and all are part of families involved in irrigated agriculture as a major source of income. Below I look more closely at the new organization and its claims.

Carefully Selected Facts

“WHY THE STATE WATER BOARD’S 2021-2022 FLOW REGULATION IS NOT NEEDED FOR COHO SALMON IN THE SCOTT RIVER” (the caps are theirs) sets out to debunk the “myth” that Drought Emergency Water Regulations, enacted in the midst of an historic drought are needed to give Coho Salmon a chance to survive in the Scott River Basin. You can read the white paper at this link. You can also read the Department of Fish & Wildlife’s rationale for requesting that the Water Board order the emergency flows at this link.

There are curious things about the white paper. For one, its authors did not put their names on it. I can easily understand why Sommarstrom, a recognized professional scientist, might not want to be associated with this particular white paper. It blatantly selects facts and omits those which do not support its forgone conclusions. Not exactly the scientific method on display.  

But scientists too can be advocates and no one can use all the data and cite all relevant studies. Nevertheless, even advocate scientists feel obliged to let readers know that theirs is not the only scientific view. The new alliance’s white paper does not conform to that standard. Instead it discounts scientific and technical information on the needs of Coho and Chinook Salmon and omits key studies and reports, including studies and reports commissioned by the Karuk Tribe.   

As I see it, the white paper demonstrates once again that Scott River irrigators remain recalcitrant. They refuse to do their part to maintain Scott River aquatic ecosystems in order to prevent Scott River Coho and Chinook Salmon from continuing their long-term slide toward extinction. Scott Valley Ag folks think their water needs and uses are superior to all other needs and uses. 

Flood irrigation in Scott Valley on March 2, 2022. By law, irrigation is 

supposed to only take place “from about April 1 to about October 15 of each year.”

The Restoration Dodge

Thirty five years of “restoration” in the Scott Valley has failed to result in the recovery of Scott River Salmon and most of the aquatic habitats on which they depend. Too many times “restoration” funding that was supposed to help salmon has instead been diverted to mainly benefit irrigators. Most importantly, “restoration” has failed to include restoration of the flows aquatic ecosystems and the salmon which depend on those ecosystems need to survive, much less to thrive. 

Rather than addressing the key need for adequate flows, voluntary “restoration” has been used to avoid providing the real, wet water that salmon and all fish need. That must change.

There’s No Substitute for Recovery Flows

According to the best available scientific information, flows needed to recover salmon and restore salmon and related beneficial uses of Scott River are larger by month compared to the emergency drought flows requested by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and adopted by the Water Board. Once the drought is over, those who want Scott Valley Salmon restored should ask the State Water Board to adopt flow objectives for Scott River that are adequate for recovery.

State Water Board adoption of recovery flow objectives by month and water year type would provide certainty and resolve conflicts. Those who depend on water for irrigation and those who depend on water for salmon would know what they could expect and they could plan accordingly. Flow objectives adopted by the Water Board would be scientifically informed and socially balanced as required by law.

Robust Scott River Flow Objectives are urgently needed to restore not just Coho and Chinook but all the beneficial uses that are guaranteed in the California Constitution and Water Codes. Those “beneficial uses” include irrigation. The State Waters Board’s adoption of flow objectives by water year type would help Scott Valley Agriculture make the transition to truly sustainable production. Real sustainable production is production which does not threaten other beneficial uses.  

The science exists to inform flow objectives by water year type. Water Board staff reservations not withstanding, that is what the Water Board should do.

Valley of Denial

The White Paper’s authors refuse to recognize that the Scott River Basin could be producing many more Coho than it has been producing if only those consuming large amounts of surface and groundwater were giving back a little. But in the Scott Valley selfishness rules and has been redefined as virtue. 

In light of these social realities, only consistent and rigorous enforcement of California’s Water and Wildlife laws can end the ongoing epidemic of selfishness and adequately protect the Scott River’s water and fish. But rather than truly regulate, the State Water Board continues to accept “cooperative solutions” that may keep Coho from going extinct but will not restore Coho or Chinook Salmon as the vibrant and vital Public Trust Resources they once were and can again be. Cooperative solutions can play a role, but rigorous enforcement on bad actors is critical to successful recovery.

A key provision of the Water Board’s orders for the Scott and Shasta Basins is a limitation on highly inefficient stockwatering methods. Abuse of stockwatering rights, including excessive diversions from streams and using stockwatering rights to irrigate pastures outside the irrigation season, has been one of the most blatant abuses of water law in Scott Valley. To put matters bluntly, many with stockwatering rights have been committing water theft. The new limitation still allows diversion of ten times the amount of water needed by a rancher’s livestock. It is high time for the Water Board to eliminate hugely inefficient livestock watering, not just during the drought but once and for all.  

Those who care about Klamath River Salmon should actively support the State Water Board’s emergency regulations and stockwatering limitations for the Shasta and Scott Basins. We must also continue to be vigilant. Political pressure on the Water Board to “compromise” what salmon needed is intense. Those who care about salmon and our rivers must continue to insist that Water Board staff not compromise California’s Water and Wildlife Codes. 

If you think enforcement rather than “cooperative solutions” is what is most needed now, let the State Water Board know at this address: [email protected] and let Cal DFW know at this address: [email protected]. If you see Scott Valley irrigation outside of the April 1 to October 31 irrigation season, or any other abuse of the environment, please file a confidential online complaint with Cal EPA.


Digging Deeper

I see the white paper as an accurate expression of dominant beliefs and positions shared by most members of the Scott Valley’s agricultural community. For those interested in learning more about Scott Valley society and politics and how they impact salmon and all beneficial uses of water, below I dig a deeper into what I believe are errors and intentional omissions contained in the Ag white paper.

The white paper uses public information on the size of the Scott River’s adult Coho run and information on Coho out-migration from the Scott to argue that the Coho are not really in danger of extirpation from the Scott River Basin and that, even if they were in danger, the emergency flows called for by DFW and being ordered by the State Water Board are not needed in summer because there are no Coho in Scott River at that time.

In making those assertions the white paper’s authors ignore the following relevant factors:

#1 Coho Population Size

500 spawning adults is considered the absolute minimum population of a salmon stock needed to maintain sufficient genetic diversity within that stock or population group. Because not all migrating adults get to spawn, a run size significantly in excess of 500 individuals is needed to assure that at least 500 adults get to reproduce. Reduced genetic diversity means reduced resilience and increased risk of extirpation/extinction.

As noted in the white paper, in the Scott River Basin “average coho run size since 2007 is now 732 adults.” Since not all migrating adults are able to spawn, 732 migrating adults is dangerously close to the 500 minimum spawning adults scientists believe are needed to maintain genetic diversity. Significant loss of genetic diversity vastly increases the chances that a fish or wildlife species or population will go extinct. But even before a critical threshold is reached, fewer spawners means reduced genetic diversity and increased vulnerability to changing environmental conditions. 

A low genetic population combined with significant year to year variability in the number of spawners and now three rather than just two “weak” Coho “cohorts” is not the robust Coho population that the white paper’s authors claim. The threat of extirpation from the Scott, which would be the extinction of the Scott River Coho, is not some risk manufactured in order to punish Scott Valley irrigators; it is, rather, a clear and present danger well documented by scientific experts. What is it about those experts that the three authors question? It can only be either their competence or their integrity.

#2 Where Coho Are Found

The authors claim that the emergency flows are not needed during the irrigation season because “CDFW’s annual salmon reports clearly show that coho do not occupy the mainstem of the river during July through early October.” The authors fail to mention that the reason there are no Coho in the River during summer and early fall is that conditions there are rendered lethal to salmon and most other fish.  

Removal of stream shade in order to maximize agricultural production in Scott Valley is one reason Scott River becomes too hot for salmon during the summer and early fall. Coho, and Chinook and Steelhead as well, flee into those cold tributaries which flow from wilderness and are not dewatered by irrigation diversions before they reach Scott River. 

Scott River below Scott Valley on October 6th, 2019.

The Chinook Salmon run is flow-delayed nearly every year.

A stream’s water temperature is also flow related: more flow means lower stream temperature and less flow means higher stream temperature. The dewatering of the Scott via irrigation and stockwatering are another reason the Scott River below Scott Valley is too hot for Coho and almost every other fish species to survive. If you doubt this just swim the Scott River below Scott Valley in August. I’ve done it and seen an eerie underwater wasteland devoid of all salmon and most other fishes.

According to the Clean Water Act as expressed in the North Coast Regional Basin Plan, Scott Valley Ag folks are supposed to maintain natural shade along streams that pass through the land they control so that stream water temperatures remain cool. Most Scott Valley Ag operators ignore this legal requirement. They plow and plant right down to the streambanks or allow their livestock to trample the banks, thereby removing shade vegetation which allows the water to grow hot while adding sediment that fills pools and renders spawning gravel unusable. 

The photo below shows plowing this spring right up to the streambank break along Moffett Creek in Scott Valley and the photo below that is of a feed lot located along lower Kidder Creek where a group of bulls is allowed to continually trample several hundred feet of streambank.


I’ve been filing complaints for years about these and other sites in the Scott Valley where streambanks are trampled, sediment is delivered to streams and stream shade is removed or prevented. Unfortunately, and in spite of the fact that the Scott is officially recognized as sediment and temperature impaired, the North Coast Water Board refuses to enforce the Clean Water Act when it comes to agricultural operations and operators.

The reason there are no Coho in Scott River below Scott Valley in summer is because the irresponsible Ag operators whose actions the white paper defends decrease flows and increase the river’s temperature to the point where Coho can’t survive in the River in and below Scott Valley and must flee to the free-flowing tributaries.

#3 The Ag Safety Net is Ironclad

The white paper’s authors claim that maintaining the emergency flows for Coho threatens to put farmers and ranchers out of business. It is a false claim for several reasons, below are two:

          1. Since 1977 almost all agricultural operations and operators in the Scott Valley have developed the ability to irrigate with groundwater. Many of those irrigation wells and center pivot irrigation systems were paid for by federal taxpayers via the Klamath EQIP Program. When surface water is not available, the irrigators just use groundwater. This cuts into their profit margins but it is still profitable to farm using groundwater for irrigation.The Water Board’s emergency regulations allows for some use of groundwater for irrigation.

          2. Some Scott Valley Ag producers receive taxpayer subsidies every year. In addition, whenever as a result of drought or other disasters Ag producers can’t make a profit, the federal government steps in with Disaster and Farm Bill Payments to make those farmers and ranchers whole. For example, from 1995 to 2019 Ag producers in the 96027 (Etna) zip code (just one part of Scott Valley) received $6,010,299 in payments from the federal government (source: EWG Database). Those payments are financed by taxpayers. Payments made every year are augmented regularly when a disaster is declared. 

Ag producers have an excellent government safety net that guarantees their incomes. The safety net has many aspects, not just the two described above. For example, taxpayers pay part of the premium whenever an Ag operator decides to purchase crop insurance. I’m not against these income supports. It is just too bad that the poor and disadvantaged don’t enjoy similar income support.

The levels of taxpayer support enjoyed by Scott Valley Ag producers individually and collectively are readily available from a public database at this link. The authors of the White Paper surely know about the ongoing crop, disaster and conservation payments because their family Ag businesses receive them. Why do you suppose they failed to mention them? 

#4 Key Information Excluded and Ignored

The authors’ use and misuse of selective information is evident to those familiar with the relevant scientific information. The omissions are reflected in the white paper’s bibliography. The only document from the Karuk Tribe included is the Emergency Petition itself. The Karuk Tribe commissioned and paid for several scientific studies and assessments that are relevant to the status and recovery of Coho and Chinook Salmon in the Scott River Basin. Those studies are well known and readily available in several locations, including the Karuk Tribe’s website. Why were the Karuk Tribe’s Scott scientific studies and assessments omitted? 

Denial of Reality Present and Past

Were these errors and omissions intentional or unintentional? Who knows and does it really matter? The fact is that the authors deny that Scott River Coho are at risk of extinction and totally ignore what experts have identified as the main risks to their continued existence. They also ignore what is called for in the Coho Recovery Plan.

The authors apparently believe that the need of Scott Valley ranchers and alfalfa growers to maximize profits trumps the needs of other species to survive. Why else would they publish such a mean spirited white paper which cherry picks the scientific information, failing to mention key facts that do not comport with their objective?

The white paper is one more confirmation that in the Scott River Valley we have a landed aristocracy which insists that their use of the land is the highest and best use; Coho and all else that depends on healthy stream ecosystems be damned.

This should not surprise us. The Scott River Basin’s landed aristocracy got the land by expropriation, while eliminating its previous owners, the indigenous Shasta of Scott Valley. They continue to believe that they are entitled, not only to the land but also to the water. 

While the degradation of the Scott River by agricultural operations has been a long term process, the details have changed over time. In the 1970s, Scott Valley native Jim Denny wrote an article chronicling the destruction he had seen up until that point. You can read Jim Denny’s Death of a Lady at this link

The Ag white paper demonstrates why we need to get rid of the Scott Valley Aristocracy. Aristocracies take care of themselves at the expense of all others, including less advantaged members of their own and other species. Aristocracies are antithetical to real democracy and, in the case of Scott Valley, to acknowledgement and redress for the historic genocide by which the Scott Valley aristocracy got “ownership” of the land and (until recently) control of the water.

We should not be surprised that the aristocracy is upset about losing control of the water. They refuse to take responsibility for the fact that it is their own greed, resulting in the dewatering of Scott River and the endangerment of Scott River Salmon, that created the current situation.

This is the way all aristocracies act and it is the main reason freedom loving folks came to the USA, that is, to escape aristocracy and its excesses. And that is why the Scott River Aristocracy should fall: it is not only unjust to the Scott River, its aquatic ecosystems and those who depend on them, it is not in keeping with American ideals.

What’s Needed Now

What we need now is law and order in the form of rigorous enforcement of our water and wildlife laws which Scott Valley irrigation interests have so often and so callously violated. We need real and significant consequences for those who violate lawful Water Board orders. We need respect for all the beneficial uses of water, not just irrigated agriculture.

These matters need to be brought out in the open and discussed because that is the path to justice and social harmony. So I encourage all those reading this who have related thoughts and opinions to share them with neighbors and friends, including by leaving a comment on this post at this blog.  

The Scott Valley is a beautiful place but the lack of water justice is an ugly stain on its society. We can build a society whose beauty corresponds to the natural beauty of the Scott River Basin. All that is required is honesty and equity. It remains unclear whether we are up to the task. 


Postscript: You Too Can Weigh-In 

The Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance is using the “existential threat” it falsely claims is facing Scott Valley farmers and ranchers to build pressure on the State Water Board to rescind Drought Emergency Regulations enactment on behalf of Scott River Coho. You can weigh in on this issue too. The State Water Board is accepting comments at any time. Please email comments to [email protected]. Wherever you stand, let your voice be heard! That’s democracy in action.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *