Featured News, Scott Valley, Siskiyou

Water Board steps in 3rd time to manage minimum flows in Scott River, tributaries

Sarah Schaefer’s voice carried over the feed from Sacramento like a distress signal. 

The state Water Resources Control Board was holding an all-day workshop before passing a third emergency drought regulation – “eregs” –  for Scott and Shasta Rivers. 

“It affected the Karuk – suicide, diabetes, poverty. Eel and salmon were half their diet. The spring run was important to them, now it’s basically disappeared.”

“Eregs” for the two previous irrigation seasons required farmers to curtail – lower – their diversion of river water; or if they pumped from wells, to curtail the amount they took. 

Curtailment was necessary, according to board documents, to insure minimum flows for Coho and Chinook salmon, steelhead, trout and lamprey. 

Despite the end of the California drought, a new ereg for Scott and Shasta River watersheds was under consideration because of continuing, “drought-like conditions”.

Shackleford Creek, late October. Water habitat is non-existent shortly before coho historically spawn. credit: Mike Meyer

“Now the fall-run and the coho-run are in trouble,” said Schaefer, one of four presenters on the state of fisheries in Klamath River. “And Shackleford Creek is dry! The whole system is out of balance, but it’s legal!”

Schaefer’s interest in Shackleford Creek came across as immediate as a farmer’s interest in a full irrigation ditch. She works out of an office down the road from the creek as a biologist and Tribal Environmental Director for Quartz Valley Indian Reservation. 

“Seeing the creek dry at the same time water is flowing in the ditches is brutal on tribal members.” 

Shackleford is a coho tributary of Scott River. Cold, snow-melt waters tumble from the Marble Mountains down Shackleford Creek and over a waterfall, then pass by the forested Quartz Valley reservation. It is the winding, quieter waters between hay fields and cow pastures to the Scott River that have always attracted coho.

In 2023, the count of spawning coho in the Scott River by Department of Fish and Wildlife was 912. These salmon, and probably more, came up the Klamath River after 2-3 years in the ocean. In the home stream, females fashioned nests in the gravel, laid about 10 eggs and then made as many more nests as they needed to release all of their 1,000 to 2,000 eggs. Males accompanying the females fought over who would fertilize the eggs.

In 2022 CDFW counted 238 coho spawners in the Scott. Numbers for both years, though, were incomplete because counting stopped early, due to increased flows, when coho were still arriving. 

Coho spawning was once at its peak in late November. When flows in a tributary like Shackleford Creek are too weak to forge a channel through the the rocky sediment that builds up, the coho must wait outside in the Scott River. Some years, because of the wait, they deposit their eggs in the Scott on earlier Chinook eggs already in a nest. 

Researchers have constructed river-flow models and developed studies of salmon abundance for historic times – before water was diverted from the river. The aim is to determine the number of coho that spawned when the river’s flows and habitat were unimpeded. The overall goal has been to recover the river and the species to their natural health.

Survival for coho (and other fish) is particularly difficult now, when flows are low and even disconnected in summer and fall. Flows are also often over-warm and polluted by runoff, after water diversions to hay fields and pastures are exposed to the heat of the day, chemical additions and cattle waste. 

Report narratives sometimes portray the sense of a river and a valley in a time when habitat fit the natural ups and downs of weather and river flows.

Scott Valley was described by a Hudson’s Bay trapper in 1827 as “all one swamp caused by the beaver dams,” and, “the richest place for beaver I ever saw”. 

These descriptions were quoted in a 2021 report for the Karuk Tribe by Larry Lestelle, from an earlier study by Sari Sommarstrom.

The trappers came through first in 1827. It was then that this same trapper reported taking part in killing 1800 beaver in one month. 

The trapping of most of the beaver in the valley “had a significant effect on the Scott River and its tributaries,” wrote Sommarstrom. This was true because beaver dams “slow the movement of water, sediment, and streamside vegetation out of watersheds,” conditions in which coho thrive.

Lestelle reported these accounts and examined other reports, listing several methods for estimating river flow and coho numbers. In times before non-Indians arrived, he concluded, the number of returning salmon varied year to year based on flow and survival rates in the ocean, from a low of 3,265 to a high of 58,000. 

In 2004, there were 153 registered diversions in Scott Valley. The total of their combined allotment of water, according to each water right, was greater than the average monthly flow of the Scott River from June through December.

No water flows in Scott River winding through the alfalfa fields. Disconnection of the river occurs during summer in recent years. credit: Mike Meyer

Since 1989, Lestelle wrote, Scott River, French Creek, Kidder Creek, Shackleford Creek, and Mill Creek have been considered by the state water board to be “fully appropriated”. 

Two weeks after the water board’s October workshop, Schaefer answered questions in her office about Shackleford Creek. which was a quarter mile down the road.

Sarah Schaefer, environmental director at Quartz Valley Indian Reservation. Schaefer described conditions on Shackleford Creek during a workshop for the state Water Resources Control Board in October. The creek is a major contributor of coho salmon to the Scott River. Credit: Mike Meyer

“No one’s breaking the law – well, they are today because they’re flowing and supposed to be shut off. But normally when they’re diverting, nobody is technically breaking the law,” she said.

In a follow-up conversation, Schaefer said, “The diversions are legal, apparently, but we have no water master to check them. It’s against Fish and Wildlife code to de-water a stream, and with a protected species in it, it’s a no-brainer.”

Schaefer described the creek a short distance up from the reservation, where a series of pools and waterfall come down. 

“The waterfall is quite impressive. But a short distance down, a few hundred feet, the water’s just gone.” There are several diversions between the waterfall and the bridge a mile and a half down on Quartz Valley Road. 

Shackleford Creek becomes a dry bed when flows do not penetrate the rocky sediment down from the mountains, because they are weak or non-existent. Schaefer and others don’t know how strong the flows would be without diversions. 

Crystal Robinson is a CDFW environmental scientist in the Siskiyou County area. Robinson described the geologic condition on the section of Shackleford Creek from the bridge on Quartz Valley Road to the waterfall. 

“Sediment is depositing there right at the base of the mountain,” Robinson said. “And so the elevation of the stream is high. Flows are going subsurface through that section more than in other places on Shackleford.” 

David Coffman, an alluvial geologist, agreed that sediment builds up, but stated the build up is not the cause of the creek going dry.

“Shackleford Creek has always dealt with sediment, until recently. Yes, Shackleford is an alluvial fan, but it held water year-round before all the diversions and pumping,” said Coffman, who is the director of Resource Environmental Solutions’ Northern California/Southern Oregon district. RES is the lead contractor for habitat development on the upper Klamath River. 

QVIR’s chairman, Harold Bennett, grew up on the reservation. In a December interview, he told of the Shackleford Creek of his youth in the late 1980s and 90s. 

“The way it was when I was a kid to the way it is now … so different. I remember distinctly thinking, ‘look at all these fish!’ There were just so many. My uncle said it was nothing, ‘You should have seen it when I was young,’ he said. I couldn’t understand how there could be more fish  than I saw.”

The state water board sought to address low flows on the local rivers and their tributaries in the 2024 ereg. 

This was done by requiring that meters be installed on well pumps used for irrigation, and by providing an option for irrigators that allows them to avoid the required 30% reduction of pumped water by requiring instead reductions of 90-95% by late August or early September.

Another requirement that may improve Shackleford Creek flows is a reworking of the previous ereg provision for inefficient livestock watering.  

“Excessive diversion of surface water for a small amount of water delivered (for cattle)” between September to April is prohibited. 

Diversions are considered inefficient when 90% of the diverted water is lost due to seepage and evaporation as it is transported in earthen ditches.

Excessive diversions will be allowed if minimum flows are met, no curtailment is in effect, and CDFW determines that flows are sufficient for chinook and coho spawning in the rivers and tributaries.

Quartz Valley tribe part of Shackleford Creek ecosystem – ‘It’s in my veins’

When I talked to Sarah Schaefer at Quartz Valley Indian Reservation last October, she often mentioned Shackleford Creek. The creek runs by the reservation but it was dry then, for no apparent reason in mid-October, and that rankled her along with how it affected tribal members. 

I asked about the connection people have with the land and the creek, and she told me her thoughts but said I should really talk with tribal members, and mentioned Harold Bennett, the chairman. 

Two months passed before I met with Bennett at the reservation’s administration building in Quartz Valley. Schaefer, the environmental director for the reservation, escorted me to a meeting room, where a man walked in and, greeted her then turned to me. Though we had traded emails, I hadn’t met Harold Bennett until then. The man was younger than I expected, about 40, in a farmer’s cap and jacket. He continued to look at me and we shook hands across a table and sat down. 

Before we started, he said he wasn’t sure about talking to a reporter. One never knew a reporter’s agenda, which could affect relations with people. He was putting himself out on a limb, so to speak. 

Through a doorway ahead of the table, a woman moved in and out of an office with papers in her hands, made copies, talked on the phone.  A young man was cleaning, he couldn’t get past my chair until I moved it close to the table  Behind Harold Bennett through an open door, daylight and tall trees and a few parked cars displayed on an office window. 

When he was ready, I asked him about living on Shackleford Creek. He smiled and scanned across the ceiling. I was ready, eager even, for the opportunity to talk to a man whose people had been through so much, whose culture is rooted in this area and not somewhere else and so was very different from my background, and who grew up in the mountains and on the rivers closer to the earth than anyone I ever knew. 

I could see he had something to say, now. I wait for the words to come, check my laptop, make sure the cursor’s in the right place until he starts speaking 

“When I was a kid to the way it is now, it was different, so so different when I was a kid and we would go down to the creek and would pitchfork salmon or steelhead, because it was abundant, you know. I remember so distinctly, I was thinking, ‘ma-a-an, look at all these fish!’ There were just so many that I can never not think of that,” he says with his eyes big and round holding mine with wonder in his face. 

“And I remember my uncle was like, ‘you should’a seen it when I was a kid.’ But back then I could never understand that, because seeing all the fish I saw, I thought, how could there be more fish than that?

“Now when I take my kids fishing, they say, ‘look at all these fish!’ I tell them the same thing my uncle said. It took me 30 years to realize what it meant, I’ve lived it, have slowly watched them decline to just a few fish now.”

I asked how he relates to Shackleford as an adult. 

“Looking at it now you can see how the water is depleted from water quality as kid. It was clear and cold, we could drink it. This in the late 80s and early 90s. We lived in the water, I mean, it was us, it was a life support for us playing on it, making sure we had pathways to walk, just travel on it. It was like the video games of today for us. It was where we went to get away from things, we were free and one with it.

“To gradually watching the creek going dry, not understanding it but being told, ‘oh, it’s due to drought, it’s due to underground water getting sucked down. 

“As you get older you learn about diversion of the creek and the taking of the water from up higher before it gets down to us anymore.”

I asked about coho in Shackleford, and Bennett told about a pool, a “spot”, he called it, on Scott River.

“There was a certain spot we would go to fish. I never understood why they were there in that spot. But as I got older, I realized it was a holding spot where the cold water used to come into the river from Shackleford. So that’s why they (spawners going to a tributary further up the Scott) would pool up there.

Shackleford Creek enters Scott River in March. 2024. credit: Mike Meyer

“Now, when water needs to be there, it’s not there. So they have to go way up, to French Creek, probably. So that’s a stretch they have to bypass to get all the way to the next cold one, when they used to be able to stop mid-way (where Shackleford came in), get some cold water in them, rest and then continue on. “

Mouth of Shackleford Creek in late October, 2023. Sediment closes the Shackleford’s channel until water users stop or slow down diverting and pumping in mid to late fall. Historically, this was the time frame when coho began arriving to spawn. credit: Mike Meyer

The Quartz Valley Indian Reservation was established between 1937 and 1939, when 640 acres on Shackleford Creek was bought under the 1934 Reorganization Act for Indian People. 

I had been told that tribal people in the region were sent to it, and I wanted to know how different people came together in Quartz Valley, in the beginning. Harold Bennett said he could only tell me what had been passed to him from others.

“My daughter is taking a political science class, and she asked me about reservations and what that meant to me. I have a hard time with this. Not knowing what it was as a kid, but now seeing how they just rounded us all up and then stuck us in other people’s territories that had nothing to do with us?”

The reservation’s tribal members came from the Karuk Tribe on the Klamath River; from the Klamath people who lived in an area roughly encompassing Medford to Crater Lake; and from the Shasta people who were spread out along the Klamath, Shasta, Scott and upper Sacramento rivers, and east to Alturas. QVIR is not composed of all the people in those tribes, but those who were placed there.

“They just grabbed us and said, ‘you’re all the same, here you go.’ But we’re not all the same. I mean, we are all natives, we have similar ideologies, similar beliefs. “But we have our own culture. Our own prayers, our own spots. 

“It’s hard to believe the government did that to us.” 

And the reason they were moved? 

“Miners coming through. And the spot they wanted, we were at. They said, ‘let’s pick these ones up, go stick em out there, and now this is open for us.’ 

“It sucks to even say that,” Bennett said holding his still eyes to mine and with a light smile. “Because it’s hard to hear, you know?” He looked quickly away. “Because it’s saying, ‘You know what? You guys are less than us. Let’s go put you over here.'”

Bennett let a few seconds pass, then explained, “people might not see it that way, but it’s hard not to once you’ve lived it.”

Bennet’s grandparents, great aunts and uncles “walked over the mountains.” to Quartz Valley. “When they got there, there were little houses and ditches. Those ditches were put there for the natives for gardens and water. They were their pipes, how they got water. 

“So then we were here, adapting, becoming part of the ecosystem, I would say.” To now when the attitude around them is, ‘here comes a crop, that’s worth money, that has value.’ So again, repeating history,” he said.

The Termination Act of 1953 was an attempt to end reservations in the U.S. by allowing native people to trade their Indian status for a deed of land. Quartz Valley reservation was terminated, but it took 11 years before land was actually deeded to tribal members.

Those people then owned a dwelling and a water ditch. But most people were innocents when it came to the ways of property holders. Half the deeded property was immediately seized for debts owed. Then more properties were seized for unpaid taxes the following year. Over the next few years, 90% of the original 640 acres of QVIR land was sold out of native ownership.

“We didn’t know how to pay taxes. If we went to a doctor, we didn’t know you had medical bills that were going to be charged against you,” Bennett exhaled an incredulous laugh. 

“So a lot of natives lost their land not knowing how to, not being taught how to … own it, in the non-native way, you know. Where you had to pay taxes on land, we didn’t know that, they didn’t know that. 

“They lived on land that was always their land. And so when somebody offers you, ‘ok here you go, you can have this land,’ you say ‘ok, great.’

“But if you don’t tell me about taxes, about going to the doctor and then I have a bill now, that you’re going to be able to come and get this land … that was another mistrust of the government to us.”

Quartz Valley reservation administrative offices. The reservation now consists of 143 acres, and tribal membership has grown to 298. Credit: Mike Meyer

During the termination period, Quartz Valley reservation land was settled and developed by non-native people. When they lost land, native people also lost the water rights attached to it. Drinking water and traditional fishing waters were diverted for farming and ranching, and water quality in tribal ditches degraded to where E. ecoli is a continuing health problem.

In a 1983 class-action lawsuit, Hardwick v. United States, the Termination Act was declared unlawful. QVIR was legally reinstated, though no land was replaced and no water-rights were returned.

“I hate that we have to keep remembering the past,” Bennett offered quietly. “I’m not one to put blame on things. I like to think, ‘ok, that was then, this is now, let’s move forward.’

Talking with Sarah Schaefer a few weeks earlier, I developed some inkling of a connection people could have with creeks and rivers. After all, they lived by them their whole lives. They were brought up by family with the knowledge of experience about rivers and salmon, appreciation for these things of the natural world. 

When I asked Schaefer, she answered simply. “It means everything. It’s their whole world.”

The woman working in the back office joined us at the table. I was introduced to Charlene Henry, Bennett’s cousin and a QVIR council member.

I asked about connections, and after a moment, Charlene Henry looked at me and said she had a strong connection for the Salmon River. 

“I lived there for five years. We didn’t have electricity – we used to say the running water was the electricity. But the river, it still … it’s something that gets into your heart. And gets into your safety zones. You know you can trust and rely on it,  I’ve seen a lot of fish come out of there … it’s connected to you because you look for it as a life source.”

“That’s what it means to most natives. It’s in our veins,” Bennett said. 

“When the hunters were going out, I helped with breakfast,” Henry continued. “We were not allowed to go back to bed after they left, and gramma told me to say a little prayer. I helped her in the kitchen, or anything she would do for relations. We couldn’t have bad thoughts, we had to keep good thoughts in our brain, no fighting or flirting – nothing like that, you had to have good, honest thoughts …. you had to keep your energy good, so to speak.”

The creeks were their source of food. When they caught salmon, it was for everyone – the people around them, Bennett explained. 

“The fish were fresher then. I think there was more water, more cold water to help get them farther up before they started decomposing.

“Now when the salmon are in the Scott River, we don’t even mess with them, really. They’re just … too far gone. 

Bennett described the struggles that migrating fish were engaged in when they left the ocean. 

“Once they enter the Klamath, they stop eating, they’re dying. Getting from the mouth to the Scott River is its own battle, then in the Scott,” the battle becomes more than they can deal with, “because of the temperature of the water and all the … just, disease in the water I guess.

“And not having spots for them to pool up in, or they have to pool up for so long that they start sharing disease. I don’t think we even had gill-disease when I was a kid. 

“Back then they were edible for us right from my gramma’s house. But now? I don’t think I would try. The quality of the meat is so deteriorated that it’s not recognizable.:

Bennett said the surviving salmon enter into their home stream later and later in the year.

“There are no flows … the timeline of the fish is … evolving, I guess, to what the water is. 

“The fish are finally in Mill Creek,” he said. “Should have been here in October, and now they’re just getting there? It shouldn’t be that way, you know. 

“The problem is, we’re overtaking the Scott, I think personally, and depleting it to not leaving enough for the fish. There might be enough coming up, but fish aren’t going to survive in bathtub-temperature water. They need cooler water.”

Quartz Valley reservation was reorganized in 1988. Administrative and health facilities were established. Membership grew to 298 members, 131 of whom live on the reservation. There are 31 homes.

Currently, some of the original reservation land has been returned to tribal status. Tribal members also make land and home purchases when available. The Reservation now consists of 143 acres. The tribe hopes to slowly build the reservation back up to it’s original 643 acres.

One Comment

  1. Ana Mulvaney

    Do not devert water and leave down stream waters dry. That is a crime . Get a water master on site so regulation matches all usages.

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