[env-trinity] SFGate: Key salmon spawning rivers all but dry

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Mon Sep 14 08:13:09 PDT 2009

> The original article can be found on SFGate.com here:
> http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2009/09/13/MN5I19CVKD.DTL
> ---------------------------------------------------------------------
> Sunday, September 13, 2009 (SF Chronicle)
> Key salmon spawning rivers all but dry
> Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
>   The key spawning grounds for what was once the greatest run of salmon on 
> the North Coast are close to being as dry as they have ever been, 
> according to biologists and the U.S. Geological Survey.
>   As California bakes under a third year of drought, the Scott and Shasta 
> rivers, near the California-Oregon border, have become little more than 
> dry beds of rock and dirt.
>   Recent measurements showed the water volume in both rivers approaching 
> record lows for this time of year. The two tributaries of the Klamath 
> River are historic breeding grounds for salmon and are considered critical 
> to the recovery of the species.
>   "Large areas of the (Scott) River have gone completely dry, stranding 
> endangered coho salmon as well as chinook and steelhead in shallow, 
> disconnected pools of water," said Greg King, president of the nonprofit 
> Siskiyou Land Conservancy, which has fought to protect the salmon runs in 
> the Klamath River system.
>   "This could be the year that causes the coho to go extinct if they can't 
> get upstream in the Scott and Shasta."
> Salmon once abundant
>   The Klamath River system, historically the third-largest source of 
> salmon in the lower 48 states behind the Columbia and Sacramento rivers, 
> once supported hundreds of thousands of wriggling chinook salmon, coho 
> salmon and steelhead trout. Chinook once swam all the way up to Klamath 
> Lake in Oregon, providing crucial sustenance to American Indians, 
> including the Yurok, Karuk and Klamath tribes.
>   The teeming salmon runs were so abundant that old-timers remember being 
> awakened at night by the sound of thrashing fish. Legend has it the big 
> spawners were so crowded together that they could be harvested with a 
> pitch fork during peak season.
>   Their numbers began declining in the mid-20th century as a result of 
> dams, agricultural irrigation and logging. By the mid-1980s, only a few 
> thousand fish were left - mostly on the Scott and Shasta.
>   The number of salmon now in the river is a tiny fraction of what it was 
> a century ago, and California coho are listed as endangered - which is why 
> the water level in their breeding grounds is so important.
>   The U.S. Geological Survey gauge on the Scott River near Snow Creek 
> measured an average water volume of only 5.1 cubic feet per second on Aug. 
> 30, with a low that day of 3.5 cfs.
>   That's compared to the median flow of 47 cfs on that date based on 67 
> years of measurements. The lowest average volume recorded in one day on 
> the Scott was 3.4 cfs on Sept. 20, 2001. Measurements are recorded 96 
> times a day.
>   A flow of 3 cubic feet per second is the equivalent of 22.44 gallons of 
> water rolling between the banks. In an average-size riverbed, it is barely 
> a trickle.
> Shasta River levels
>   The Shasta River hit a low daily average of 5.0 cfs on July 29, dipping 
> that day to 3.0 cfs near where it empties into the Klamath.
>   The record low for the Shasta was 1.5 cubic feet on Aug 24, 1981. The 
> normal flow on the Shasta at this time of year is between 25 and 30 cfs 
> based on more than 70 years of data.
>   Al Caldwell, the geological survey's deputy chief of California's 
> hydrologic monitoring program, said river volumes fluctuate wildly, so it 
> is impossible to get a complete picture until the season averages are 
> calculated. Although the flows increased slightly this past week - 
> possibly as a result of less irrigation by farmers along the banks - 
> Caldwell said water levels overall are still abysmally low.
>   "The important thing here is that we are very close to a minimum of 
> record at the Scott River," Caldwell said. "We're practically at the 
> minimum on the Shasta River and if it continues to go down we'll break the 
> record."
> Troubling time
>   The situation is particularly troubling for anglers, Indian tribes and 
> environmentalists given the dismal state of the California fishery. 
> Devastating declines in the number of spawning salmon in both the Klamath 
> and Sacramento river basins forced regulators to ban almost all ocean 
> fishing of chinook salmon in California and Oregon for the past two years.
>   The Scott and Shasta rivers are important not just as spawning grounds, 
> but because the two tributaries are a main source of cold water for the 
> Klamath, which is having terrible problems with algae blooms associated 
> with warm, pooling water.
>   Low water isn't just a problem on the far North Coast. A declining 
> snowpack has meant the Russian, Eel, Napa, Salinas and Gualala rivers and 
> many tributaries around the state are hurting for water. But it is a 
> particular problem along the Klamath, where the consequences are 
> comparatively dire.
>   Environmentalists and local Indian tribes have been fighting for years 
> to stop water diversions for irrigation. In 2002, 33,000 fish went 
> belly-up after the Bush administration slashed releases to the river.
>   Still, ranchers exercising water rights adjudicated in the 1930s 
> typically lower the rivers by sucking up groundwater during the summer.
>   "It's been a chronically bad problem," said Pat Higgins, a fisheries 
> biologist who works for five lower basin Indian tribes on water- and 
> dam-related issues. "It's worse this year than it has been in the last 10 
> years."
> Restoration work
>   But there has been progress. Over the past decade, many ranchers have 
> joined efforts to screen agricultural pump intakes to avoid sucking in 
> baby fish. They've also made efforts to stop soil erosion, which can silt 
> up rocky spawning grounds, and restore shady riverside forests that help 
> lower water temperatures. Some help transport fish trapped in "dewatered" 
> streambeds.
>   Negotiations are under way between U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar 
> and the various stakeholders to remove four small dams - Iron Gate, Copco 
> I, Copco II and J.C. Boyle - built on the Klamath starting in 1909. The 
> enormously complicated deal would restore 300 miles of spawning habitat.
>   But the dams probably won't be removed for another 12 years. With the 
> expectation of at least one more month of hot, dry conditions, time may be 
> running out.
>   "Until you fix the passage problem and take out the four dams, it's 
> those tributaries where we really ought to be focusing our restoration 
> efforts,"
> said Chuck Bonham, the senior attorney for Trout Unlimited in Berkeley.
> "We're going to have to round the corner here and start doing the tough 
> stuff."
>   For a USGS graph showing flows in real time, go to links.sfgate.com/ZIBY 
> or links.sfgate.com/ZIBZ.
> E-mail Peter Fimrite at 
> pfimrite at sfchronicle.com. ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> Copyright 2009 SF Chronicle

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