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‘Things have to change’: Big decision looms as Klamath Basin ranchers, tribes battle over water and salmon

By Rachel Becker, CalMatters Network
December 18, 2023

The Shasta River flowing through a field near Mount Shasta in Siskiyou County on Oct. 30, 2023. The removal of the Klamath River dams over flows form the river is expected to affect salmon in rivers nearby. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Arron Troy Hockaday leaned over the highway railing to peer into the water below, where the Scott River empties into the Klamath near the Oregon border. 

Beneath the bridge, dozens of threatened coho salmon rested on their journey back from the Pacific. It was the end of October, and they were waiting for rain to drive them to calmer creeks and streams where they could spawn, then die. 

“There should be thousands of salmon in here right now,”

said Hockaday, a Karuk Tribal Council member and a fifth generation traditional fisherman. 

“I tell my kids every time I stop by here and look at these fish to take a picture. They ask me why, and I say, ‘This might be the last time you see them.’”  

About 40 miles upriver, through the mountains of Klamath National Forest, lies the flat of the Scott Valley. Jim Morris’ pickup truck bumped past cattle grazing on bright green alfalfa stubble to a dry field covered in tumbleweeds. 

“I’m a little embarrassed by this one,”

he said, nodding at the weeds. 

He had cut back on irrigating the field last year under state emergency drought measures that restricted water for farms, aimed at keeping water in the river to protect salmon. He thought it would grow back, but it didn’t.

“I’m still working on cleaning up the messes that I made through that process. If we have to cut back on water, we will. But this is the price we pay,” he said.

Morris is still totaling up the costs of the state’s emergency regulations, but estimates that he fallowed 15% to 20% of his land when hay prices were good — cutting into his sales.  

“Ag is not like having an 8-to-5 job,” he added, “You need to make money when you can, because the next year, you won’t.”

Hockaday’s and Morris’ deep-rooted ties to the water are at the core of a battle that has roiled California’s far north over the Scott River and its neighbor, the Shasta, for years. These Klamath River tributaries provide vital habitat for struggling salmon and steelhead, and critical irrigation supplies for Siskiyou County farmers. 

Now the State Water Resources Control Board is poised to decide on Tuesday whether to extend emergency drought measures, which could restrict ground and surface water for farms for another year if flows in the rivers dip below minimum thresholds. State officials say those measures are likely to kick in next year. 

The water board also is investigating the possibility of permanent requirements to keep more water in the rivers, after the Karuk Tribe and the fishing industry petitioned the state for stronger protections. That decision, however, could take years.

At the heart of the debate is a fundamental question underlying all of California’s water wars, old and new, north and south:Who must sacrifice when water demand outpaces supply, and nature shows the strain?

Tribes in the lower Klamath Basin, wildlife agencies and the fishing industry are all fighting for flows to support the rivers, their fish and the cultures and businesses that depend on them. At the same time, farmers and ranchers in the Scott and Shasta Valleys are vying for the water that supplies the cattle and crops that drive the Siskiyou County economy. 

“Things are going to have to change,” said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the water board’s division of water rights. “(There’s) recognition that the status quo isn’t going to work. But what is the new approach? We need everyone’s voice at the table to figure that out.”

California’s last salmon strongholds

The fight is coming to a boil as another battle cools: Four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River are being torn down across the California-Oregon state line, upstream of where the Scott and the Shasta rivers flow into its mainstem. Dam removal is expected to unlock hundreds of miles of habitat in the basin and bring back flows that can better wash away fish parasites and other disease. 

Yet it’s not a cure-all for the Klamath and its tributaries.

“Dam removal should help the Scott and Shasta, but the Scott and Shasta are key pieces to make dam removal a success,” Jeff Abrams, a biologist with the Klamath branch of NOAA Fisheries, said at a meeting with state regulators.  

The Scott River is one of the last remaining strongholds for coho salmon in California; the Shasta has produced more than a fifth of the basin’s wild-spawning fall-run chinook salmon over the last five years. 

But state and federal wildlife agencies warn that low flows in the Scott and the Shasta cut off critical habitat and drive up water temperatures, imperiling the Klamath Basin’s fish. 

“That’s where these animals’ life cycles start and end,” Abrams told CalMatters. “If we don’t have suitable conditions in these rivers, then these fish really have no chance.”

Chinook Salmon swimming along the Scott River on Oct. 30, 2023. Removing the Klamath River dam overflows from the river is expected to affect salmon in nearby waterways. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Chinook salmon swimming along the Scott River on Oct. 30, 2023. Photos by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Spring-run chinook, once numbering more than 100,000 in the Klamath Basin, are already gone from both the Scott and the Shasta Rivers. Coho, listed as threatened at both the state and federal levels, are considered at moderate risk of extinction in the Scott, and high risk in the Shasta

Fall-run Chinook populations — vital to commercial and tribal fishing — are collapsing across California, with numbers 43% below average between 2015 and 2020 in the Klamath Basin and 65% below average in the Scott, where they have been declining even faster.  

This year, all salmon fishing was canceled in California and in much of Oregon. The Yurok Tribe has canceled its commercial fishery every year but one since 2015, and this year closed down subsistence fishing, as well — a major blow to food security for the tribe. 

Still, by the end of October, adult chinook salmon had fought their way up the Scott River  — nosing their way through a fish counting station and into the valley to spawn. 

“This is good to see,” said Morgan Knechtle, Klamath and Trinity Rivers program supervisor with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, as he counted off eight females in a stretch of the river where they hovered over their nests on the river floor.

Morgan Knechtle , the Klamath and Trinity Rivers program supervisor for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, stands on a bridge overlooking the Big Springs Creek flowing into the Shasta River in Siskiyou County on Oct. 30, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Knechtle and his team are still tallying up the number of chinook and coho that returned to the rivers this year. To date, preliminary coho returns are trending above average on the Scott, but below average on the Shasta. Chinook, however, are looking below average on both. 

The threats to salmon are many — ocean conditions, climate change, predators, drought, dams and more.

But state and federal officials have been warning for years that crops and livestock further sap the rivers’ flows. As agriculture exploded in the Scott Valley and producers shifted to groundwater,late summer and fall flows in the river plummeted.

“During the summer, large portions of the mainstem Scott River become completely dry, leaving only a series of stagnant isolated pools inhospitable to salmonids,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reported in 2017. 

Nearby, on the Shasta, drops in flows during irrigation season can drive up water temperatures and shrink habitat, worsening conditions for fish.

Hockaday, the Karuk councilmember, said he understands that people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and for the food that’s on his table, too. But there’s got to be a balance. 

“We can’t take care of our fish because the farmers have taken all of our water. So the creator is telling us this is what you got to do. You know? One day, these ain’t going to be here,” Hockaday said. 

Aaron Hockaday looks out on the Klamath River in Happy Camp on Aug. 29, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
Aaron Hockaday, a Karuk Tribal Council member, looks out on the Klamath River in Happy Camp on Aug. 29, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

From his vantage point on the highway at the mouth of the Scott River, Hockaday watched a coho salmon lazily scrape itself on rocks rising from the water, trying to dislodge a parasitic lamprey trailing from its side.

“I’ll fight until I can’t breathe anymore for these fish,” he said. “And I hope my grandson and my sons and even my granddaughter will keep up the fight until they’re protected.”

A temporary stopgap

Two years ago, with drought tightening its grip on the region, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Karuk Tribe both urged the water board to take emergency action to help salmon and trout “survive this dire situation.” 

The measures went into place near the end of the 2021 irrigation season. The board extended them as drought continued in 2022 — curtailing diversions from the rivers when they dipped below minimum thresholds, and calling for groundwater pumpers to voluntarily reduce their use by 30% on the Scott and 15% on the Shasta, or face the possibility of being cut off completely

Then, this year, the Karuk Tribe, commercial fishing organizations and the Environmental Law Foundation petitioned for stronger, permanentflow requirements on the Scott River. 

“I’ll fight until I can’t breathe anymore for these fish. And I hope my grandson and my sons and even my granddaughter will keep up the fight until they’re protected.” 

Arron Troy Hockaday, Karuk Tribal Council member

Though a wet winter has lifted the state out of drought, most of Siskiyou County — including the Scott and Shasta valleys— remains abnormally dry. As soon as the emergency regulations expired by the beginning of August, flows on the Shasta River plummeted, with about half of the water diverted.

In August, the state board discussed the petition for permanent regulations late into the night. Though the board tasked staff with investigating the possibility of long-term restrictions on both rivers, the process would likely take years and require clearing the landmark California Environmental Quality Act’s requirements. 

In the meantime, water board chair Joaquin Esquivel said “a fish emergency” remained on the rivers. “Time isn’t our friend,” he said. “There is an urgency.” 

A dead Chinook salmon lies in the Big Springs Creek flowing into the Shasta River in Siskiyou County on Oct. 30, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

As a stopgap, the board is expected to vote Tuesday on new emergency regulations similar to the drought measures that expired over the summer. Among the changes is a requirement for certain producers to meter their groundwater pumping, following concerns that efforts in the Scott Valley may not have reduced groundwater extraction by as much as expected. The board has also added more options to allow for ramping down groundwater pumping on a schedule.

They’re temporary measures that can only last one year unless the board renews them — and Tribes and conservationists are watching the clock: If Gov. Gavin Newsom lifts the drought emergency that remains in place in Siskiyou County, the board’s power to set such emergency restrictions evaporates. 

“Is it climate change? Is it habitat change? Is it agricultural use? It’s probably some of all of those things,” said Knechtle, with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “But we’re also interested in trying to turn the dial on something that actually can have an effect, in a short amount of (time).” 

Even one year could have lasting consequences on ranchers and growers, said Ryan Walker, president of the Siskiyou County Farm Bureau. “Curtailments are almost a certainty,” he said. “One year with no water could push a substantial number of farmers out of business.” 

Walker said many worry that the emergency measures will be renewed — a gateway for long-term restrictions.

Ranchers revolt: ‘You shut us down, take our water.’

At the end of October, dozens of farmers and ranchers gathered in Montague, surrounded by the pasture and golden rangeland of the Shasta Valley. They were there, packed onto folding chairs and standing in the back of the old railroad town’s community hall, to talk about the fate of the rivers. 

One by one, in two meetings over nearly six hours, residents told state officials what they thought of the regulations. 

Some stressed the financial toll. Pamela Tozier Hayden, a Scott Valley rancher, tallied a 35% cut in hay production and the loss of fall forage for livestock, a $22,000 conversion to a more efficient irrigation system, cows sold off and pasture overtaken by weeds.  

“I would like to see us work together for reasonable solutions and local people not be pitted against one another by outside powers,” she said. 

Selling off cows “to become hamburger” is not “something we can come back from very easily,” Walker said. “We can’t fallow cows. We can’t let our cows go dry and hope they’ll come back next year.” 

In Siskiyou County, where environmental regulations have long affected local industries from gold mining to timber, many chafed against the state’s authority. One association of ranchers, facing dry stock ponds and rising costs of hay, outright bucked it during the drought — diverting water from the Shasta River in spite of the state’s orders. 

“We can’t fallow cows. We can’t let our cows go dry and hope they’ll come back next year.”

Ryan Walker, Siskiyou County Farm Bureau

Many saw the newest round of emergency regulations as another example of state officials meddling unnecessarily, when California is no longer in drought. They say there are other serious threats to salmon, beyond the rural valleys of Siskiyou County. 

“Our governor doesn’t have the knowledge to know when we’re in a water emergency. Neither does the state water board,” one attendee, Jess Harris, said.  “Are we going to be under emergency regulations forever to fit these biased desires, whether it be tribes or environmental groups?”

Speaker after speaker questioned the state’s modeling, asked whether the flow requirements were even feasible, and called for more limited restrictions and opportunities to recharge the groundwater so tightly connected to the rivers’ flows. 

Farmers and ranchers wanted to know why they were being singled out when mining, flood control projects, and forest management past and present also played a part. 

The most heated vitriol, though, was directed at community members of Hmong descent who grow cannabis in Siskiyou County, where it is illegal. 

It was dark outside before the meeting began wrapping up. As agency staff discussed their next steps, one man in the audience yelled out, “I can’t believe you think you have this power over us. Who gives you this power over all of us?”

Erin Ragazzi, assistant deputy director for water rights, tried to respond: “I don’t feel that I have power over you. The question was —”

“Yes you do,” the man said. “You shut us down, take our water, take our property.” He stood up and walked out. 

The next day, Jim Morris stood by the Scott River where it runs through land that’s been passed down through five generations of his wife’s family. He hopes his daughter will be the sixth, but he thinks that regulating flows in the rivers will make it that much harder for her to succeed.

Farmer Jim Morris overlooks his alfalfa and carrot fields on the Bryan-Morris Ranch in the Scott Valley area of Siskiyou County on Oct. 30, 2023. Bryan-Morris Ranch is one of many farms in the Scott Valley that relies on the water coming from the Scott River. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Farmer Jim Morris stands in his alfalfa and carrot fields on the Bryan-Morris Ranch in the Scott Valley. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

He worries that everyone is fighting over “scraps” of water, and that the state rules will drive wedges between communities that could take generations to fix. 

“We all have a stake in this, and we need to work together,” he said, the river gurgling beside him. “If we’re going to work against each other, we’re probably going to cause problems. We’re definitely going to blow up our communities, and we’re going to harm the resources. We’re going to harm the fish.”

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This article was originally published by CalMatters.

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