Court to Hear Challenge to Water Diversion Permits on Scott and Shasta Rivers

by Dan Bacher

The Superior Court in San Francisco on Wednesday, December 1 will hear a court challenge to salmon-killing water diversion permits approved by the California Department of Fish and Game on the Scott and Shasta Rivers on September 22, 2009.

Attorneys Wendy Park and Greg Loarie will be in court challenging the permitting programs that are driving endangered wild coho salmon extinct. The de-watering of the two major Klamath River tributaries has resulted in major fish kills over the years. During the past two years, DFG staff were forced to rescue juvenile salmon from certain death in drying pools on the rivers.

The attorneys are representing the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Klamath Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, the Quartz Valley Indian Tribe, Northcoast Environmental Center and Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) in the case.

“The permits would allow the ‘incidental take’ (i.e., killing) of coho by agriculture, so long as these water users abide by a list of generic, unstudied, and inadequate mitigation measures,” said Park. “Ultimately, the permits allow the continuation of the destructive activities that resulted in the collapse of the coho fishery in the first place.”

Local ranchers divert so much water from both rivers to grow hay that the rivers often dry up during part of the year, according to Park. Coho salmon that historically spawned in these two rivers are at, or close to, extinction.

“The California Department of Fish and Game is issuing permits to ranchers to continue dewatering the rivers based on historic diversion levels which leave baby salmon high and dry and block the return of adult fish to spawn,” Park added. “Last year only nine adult coho salmon returned to the Shasta River to spawn.”

In April 2010, water conditions on the Scott and Shasta became so inhospitable that DFG staff relocated what few endangered coho salmon could still be found in the two rivers, transplanting them dozens of miles down the mainstem Klamath River to supposed safety.

“At this point, coho are so close to extinction and the Scott and Shasta are so severely dewatered each year that this type of rescue action may be warranted, but it cannot be a substitute for rewatering, and in the long term it’s not likely to be a viable survival strategy for coho in these basins,” said Klamath Riverkeeper Erica Terence. “It’s a band-aid solution at best on what has become a major water hemorrhage.”