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Klamath Riverkeeper plans to sue Shasta River dam operator
by Dan Bacher
Sunday Mar 18th, 2012 12:52 PM
"Coho once numbered in the thousands in the Shasta River,” noted Erica Terence, Klamath Riverkeeper Executive Director. “Today fewer than 50 return most years. In 2009 only 9 endangered coho salmon (all male) returned to spawn in the Shasta River, according to the California Department of Fish and Game."

Photo of toxic algae on Shastina Reservoir courtesy of Klamath Riverkeeper.
dwinnell-toxic-algae.jpg
dwinnell-toxic-algae.jpg

Klamath Riverkeeper plans to sue Shasta River dam operator

by Dan Bacher

In a major effort to restore coho salmon to the Shasta River, the Klamath Riverkeeper (KRK) is planning to sue the operator of a dam and reservoir on the major Klamath River tributary.

On March 12, the group filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue the Montague Water Conservation District (MWCD) for ongoing operation of Dwinnell Dam and associated diversions in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Notice provides an opportunity for the District to propose measures to settle the claims before initiating a judicial proceeding, according to KRK Executive Director Erica Terence.

“Coho once numbered in the thousands in the Shasta River,” noted Terence. “Today fewer than 50 return most years. In 2009 only 9 endangered coho salmon (all male) returned to spawn in the Shasta River, according to the California Department of Fish and Game."

The coho collapse in the Shasta is part of an alarming decline of the once abundant fish throughout California. Only 1% of historic coho salmon populations remain in California’s waters, according to UC Davis fishery scientist Peter Moyle.

"In the past three years (2008-2010), estimates by California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) indicate somewhere between 500 and 3000 adult coho total returned each year to California streams, a 90% decline since our last study, meaning that at most 1% remain. They are virtually extinct south of San Francisco Bay," said Moyle. (http://caltrout.org/2011/11/californias-coho-salmon-on-verge-of-extinction).

Moyle said the over-riding cause of coho decline is 150 years of land abuse in fragile coastal watersheds. (http://californiawaterblog.com/2011/10/12/coho-in-crisis-part-2-saving-coho-saving-salmon-restoring-streams).

"This abuse is from logging, farming, grazing, mining, urbanization, road building, and other practices that alter ecosystems, cause massive sediment delivery to the rivers, divert water, block fish migrations, and generally create environments inhospitable to coho salmon," explained Moyle.

The species' sharp decline has prompted fish advocates such as Terence to make every effort they can to restore the species in streams where they still exist, although in remnant numbers.

Montague Water Conservation District owns and operates Dwinnell Dam and Shastina Reservoir on the Shasta River. A large part of Parks Creek, a key Shasta tributary, is also diverted to the Reservoir. From there water is diverted through a large ditch over 20 miles to grow hay and irrigate pasture, according to Terence.

Terence said fisheries biologists have long noted that despite being in a relatively dry area, the Shasta is historically one of the most prolific salmon producing streams in the West. The Shasta River is fed by spring water that originates on the slopes of Mt. Shasta.

"These numerous springs provide a stable supply of water at the optimal temperature for salmon," Terence explained. "The water is also rich in nutrients that in turn grow the insects that salmon feed on. However, since the 1920’s, much of the Shasta’s pristine waters have been diverted by Montague Water Conservation District without any stipulations on how much water must be left in-stream for salmon."

That is no longer legal, according to the KRK Notice of Intent. The KRK said these diversions have resulted in the unlawful take of coho, defined by any actions that "harass, harm, kill, trap or capture" the species.

According to the letter the group sent to the district, “MWCD’s operation and maintenance of Dwinnell Dam, Lake Shastina, and the Parks Creek and Little Shasta River diversions is harassing, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing and most certainly harming Southern Oregon and Northern California Coastal (SONCC) coho both by killing and/or injuring individuals of this species and by causing significant habitat modification or degradation to its habitat that impairs behavioral patterns, including spawning, rearing, migrating, feeding, and sheltering – and thus has caused substantial decline in the SONCC coho population in the Shasta River and its tributaries."

If MWCD fails in the next 60 days to demonstrate adequate, good-faith efforts to comply with legal requirements for permits to kill endangered coho salmon, she said KRK may consult fisheries experts and seek a court order to remedy the devastating impacts of the MWCD's dam and diversions.

“We want to balance water use in the Shasta so that both farm and fish dependent communities can thrive,” said Terence. “The two are not mutually exclusive but we have to learn how to better share the resource.”

After receiving the KRK's Notice of Intent to Sue, the Montague Water Conservation District issued a statement claiming that the notice was served without any "prior communications" from the group.

“The notice was served without any prior communications from Klamath Riverkeeper or any attempt at informal resolution," according to the statement. " This is disturbing, given the district has been very pro-active in making every effort to meet or exceed the ever-changing regulations governing the distribution of its members’ water rights."

“The district has also made substantial efforts to work with the governing agencies to improve habitat while preserving their members’ rights. Unfortunately, the Notice of Intent to Sue from the Klamath Riverkeeper contains substantial inaccuracies. The district is hopeful that once the true facts are known, the notice will be withdrawn. The district remains steadfastly committed to protecting its members water rights and compliantly maintaining its water distribution system in this difficult regulatory environment," the district said.

The statement did not include any details on the "substantial inaccuracies" it claimed were made by the group in the notice.

While the coho numbers have been low in recent years, the numbers of fall run chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) returning to the Shasta have increased in 2011. The Department of Fish and Game estimated that 11,400 natural spawning fall run chinooks, the largest number of any tributary to the Klamath besides the Trinity, returned to spawn in fall 2011.

2011's count contrasts greatly with the 1,348 Chinook salmon that the DFG estimated returned to the Shasta in 2010.

For more information on the Klamath Riverkeeper, go to: http://www.klamathriver.org.