By Felice Pace
Cal Fish & Game managers are asking Scott River Valley ranchers to let water pass dams and stream diversions so that Coho salmon and other fish will not be stranded in dewatered streams and die. The dewatering is illegal. But even with Coho on the brink of extinction, CDFG managers refuse to enforce the law. Governor Brown, Resource Secretary Laird and CDFG Director McCamman should reform Cal Fish & Game by bringing in new leadership and a new policy which protects salmon streams from dewatering by irrigation interests.
Officials from the California Department of Fish and Game have scheduled a meeting next Tuesday evening at Fort Jones in Siskiyou County. At that meeting CDFG officials will ask Scott River Valley irrigators to please let some water past the dams and diversions they operate so that young Coho and Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout will not be stranded and die. Even in this wet year – one of the best water years on record – irrigators who divert streams and also pump groundwater from numerous wells near the river are collectively dewatering key Scott River tributaries. In average and dry years, Chinook and Coho salmon have trouble accessing any of their spawning grounds in or above the 30 mile long agricultural Scott River Valley.
The irony is that the State of California has the right – clearly stated in its constitution – to flows below those dams and diversions that are adequate for fish. As a matter of policy, however, CDFG managers have decided that the State’s right to keep rivers alive should not be exercised in the Scott River Valley….or in the Shasta River Valley….or in just about any other stream in California.
The decision to allow irrigators to dewater streams below dams and diversions is arguably an abrogation of CDFG managers’ sworn duty. It is also one key reason Klamath River Coho – and so many other salmon stocks in California – remain on the brink of extinction.
But don’t take my word for it. Read the Fish and Game Code section 5937 on line at http://law.onecle.com/california/fish/5937.html. And then read the SF Chronicle article at this link: http://articles.sfgate.com/2001-06-22/news/17604602_1_shasta-rivers-major-klamath-tributaries-scott-and-shasta.
The Chronicle report by veteran reporters Glen Martin and Tom Steinstra details CDFG’s (mis)management policy on the Scott and Shasta Rivers. These two Klamath River tributaries should be the production breadbasket for Klamath River Salmon, but they have instead become salmon basket cases. Diversion of salmon restoration funds to benefit irrigators and willful refusal of government officials to champion the species they are sworn to protect are key reasons the Scott River and its salmon are dying.
Twenty-eight years ago when the famous Mono Lake Decision issued from California’s Supreme Court, salmon advocates thought the future would be different. Armed with a decision strongly affirming the ancient Public Trust Doctrine, salmon folks expected the California Department of Fish & Game to use the Mono Lake precedent to keep irrigation interests from dewatering our salmon streams.
We have been bitterly disappointed. Instead of using the Public Trust Doctrine to protect salmon streams, the California Department of Fish & Game is standing by while irrigation interests dewater our streams and destroy the salmon. The best this corrupt department can muster is to politely request that irrigators let a little water pass the dams and diversions so that the streams don’t completely dry up.
It is unlikely Scott River Valley irrigators will budge; why should they when CDFG has for so long been a paper tiger threatening regulatory action but never taking a violation there to court? Even when an irrigator killed hundreds of thousands of salmon and steelhead a few years back by dewatering a section of the Upper Scott River, CDFG did not prosecute.
There is, however, new leadership in Sacramento. In the governor’s office; down the street at the Resources Agency and across the street at the Department of Fish & Game there are new leaders who are to this point untainted by the deep-rooted malfeasance which has infected CDFG management for far too long.
Governor Brown, Resource Secretary Laird and CDFG Director McCamman have an opportunity to make a new start. They should begin with the Klamath. For the sake of Klamath River Salmon, they should sweep the stables clean – providing new leadership and new policy direction at the Northern Regional Office.
If they are going to survive, Klamath River Salmon need CDFG managers who will enforce the laws which should protect the Scott and Shasta Rivers from dewatering. Politely asking irrigators who for years have been dewatering rivers to please change course will not work; when laws are being systematically and intentionally disregarded, law enforcement is the only effective way forward.