Karuk and Yurok Tribes Demand Immediate Action After Water Diverted from Shasta River

Image by caleb pudewell.

Ranchers who are members of the Shasta River Water Association have defied state law by diverting water flows from the Shasta River, a key Klamath River tributary for imperiled coho and Chinook salmon, a joint press statement from the Karuk and Yurok Tribes revealed.

The association violated an order by the State Water Resources Control Board Board to cease and desist all diversions from the Shasta River just a week after a fire-induced mudslide killed all fish in a 60-mile reach of the Klamath River.

The violation by the association takes place as the Klamath Irrigation District in Southern Oregon also plans to defy a U.S. government order issued last week to halt water deliveries to farmers in the basin.

“The Klamath River Water Association is illegally dewatering one of the most important salmon nurseries in California,” said Karuk Chairman Russell ‘Buster’ Attebery. “After last week’s fish kill, every juvenile salmon in the Klamath basin must be protected to ensure future runs. We are horrified, we are angry, and we expect accountability.”

The Tribes said the diversion led to a 37% decrease in Shasta River flows, from 58 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 36 cfs in about 2 hours on August 17.  Rapid drops in flow strand fish along the banks leading to mortality, the Tribes said.

On August 18, 2022 the State Water Board issued a letter to the Shasta River Water Association stating “…the SRWA’s water right is curtailed under the drought emergency regulation and SRWA should not be diverting water from the Shasta River watershed.”

The order reads:

“IT IS HEREBY ORDERED, pursuant to sections 1831 through 1836 of the California Water Code, that:

1. The Diverter shall immediately cease and desist all diversions from the Shasta River and shall continue to cease diversions until curtailments have lifted or otherwise notified by the State Water Board.

2. The Diverter shall maintain, and provide to the Division upon request, records of all surface water diversions from the Shasta River.

3. The Diverter shall maintain a working flow meter for any future diversions once curtailment is lifted.”

Since August of 2021, water users in Siskiyou County’s Shasta and Scott River Valleys have been subject to a curtailment order (Order). The State Water Board developed the Order after Governor Newsom declared a drought emergency in the Spring 2021, the Tribes noted.

“The Order is an attempt to maintain bare minimum flows in two of the Klamath’s most productive tributaries for Chinook salmon,” explained Karuk senior fisheries biologist Toz Soto. “These flows reflect the best available science and are the minimum amount of water the fish need to survive in drought years.”

Soto said salmon spend 3-5 years of their lives as adults in the Pacific Ocean. Adults return to the freshwater streams they were born in to mate and lay eggs. Juveniles hatch in the Spring but normally spend a year in the river to grow large enough and strong enough to make the swim out to the ocean, repeating the cycle.

“The Shasta River is unique in its abundance of cold springs that flow year-round, making it an outstanding place for juvenile salmon to rear. Unfortunately, most of this cold clean water is being diverted to flood irrigate pasture,” Soto stated.

“We demand and deserve an equitable and fair approach to sharing water,” said Frankie Myers, the Yurok Tribe’s Vice Chairman. “For too long ranchers have done what they please with no concern for those of us living downstream. It is time we manage the Klamath basin together as a whole.”

The Tribes said they are “evaluating all options” for holding those engaged in illegal diversions accountable.

“The State Water Board needs to act immediately to hold these illegal diverters accountable. We know the drought is tough on the agricultural community, but once these fish are gone, they are gone forever,” concluded Myers.

The Shasta River Water Association, Inc. a tax-exempt 501(c)(12) irrigation group) based in Grenada, California, represents about 80 ranchers. According to Form 990s filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the association had total revenues of $429,505, spent $392,491 in expenses and paid 3 employees in 2019.

The Association has not yet responded to my phone call asking for a comment on the cease and desist order.

However, in a letter to the water board on August 17, the group claimed it “believed exemptions allowed it to reduce its diversion by only 15% and said it would start pumping water to supply livestock in hot weather and to fill ponds for fire suppression,” according to the Redding Record-Searchlight.

“The curtailment has dried the Shasta Valley to the point of endangerment to health and life of the public and residents who live here, with apparent disregard to the livestock and pet health within this watershed,” the letter stated.

Friends of the Shasta River accused the Association of “wanton disregard” for the emergency drought regulations upon release of a graph exposing the dewatering of the Shasta River:

“Here’s what wanton disregard for the emergency drought regulations looks like on the Shasta River,” the group stated on Twitter. “Over 2/3 of the instream flow requirement (and 100 cfs of unregulated overlying pumped groundwater) is now washing over fields full of grazing cattle, getting heated, and full of shit.”

In an update on Twitter on August 24, Friends of the Shasta River said, “Good news is that @USGS is out validating the Montague gage and it looks perfect. Bad news is that the river is seeing new lows while irrigators now have the luxury of 20 days to request a hearing about their curtailment and NOV. This is not effective enforcement @CaWaterBoards.”

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.