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North Coast | Environment & Forest Defense

Riverkeeper files lawsuit to protect Shasta River coho
by Dan Bacher
Friday May 18th, 2012 12:16 PM
"We simply have to better manage limited water resources to benefit everyone in the watershed, said Klamath Riverkeeper Executive Director Erica Terence. "We hope to resolve this issue in a way that will restore endangered coho salmon while preserving a viable agricultural economy in Siskiyou County."

Photo of algae bloom at Dwinnell Reservoir (Lake Shastina) by Klamath Riverkeeper.
dwinnell_algae_2.jpg
dwinnell_algae_2.jpg

Riverkeeper files lawsuit to protect Shasta River coho

by Dan Bacher

The Klamath Riverkeeper (KRK) Thursday filed a federal lawsuit over the harm caused to endangered coho salmon by Dwinnell Dam and a series of water diversions operated by Montague Water Conservation District (MWCD) on the Shasta River.

The Karuk Tribe also said it would file its own 60-day notice of intent to litigate on the same grounds on Friday, May 18.

The legal filing by the citizens group follows a 60-day notice period during which KRK offered MWCD an opportunity to negotiate a settlement outside the courtroom, according to a press release from KRK and the Tribe.

The March KRK letter stated, “Klamath Riverkeeper is interested in discussing effective remedies for the violations noted in this letter. If you wish to pursue such discussions in the absence of further litigation, we suggest that you initiate those discussions within the next 20 days so that they may be completed before the end of the 60‐day notice period."

The lawsuit effectively calls on the irrigation district to remedy its impacts to salmon runs verging on extinction in the Shasta, a major tributary of the Klamath that once hosted returns of thousands of adult coho salmon.

"We simply have to better manage limited water resources to benefit everyone in the watershed, said KRK Executive Director Erica Terence. "We hope to resolve this issue in a way that will restore endangered coho salmon while preserving a viable agricultural economy in Siskiyou County."

Terence said KRK's complaint, filed in federal court in Sacramento, outlines how Dwinnell Dam and MWCD diversions from Dwinnell Reservoir, nearby Parks Creek and Little Shasta River have harmed endangered coho salmon populations in the Shasta River.

"Because MWCD operates without an incidental take permit, the District is violating the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA)," KRK contends in its filing. "To comply, MWCD needs to consult the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) about the impacts of its operations on endangered coho runs and implement adequate measures to mitigate those damages."

Terence said well documented water quality and fisheries problems stem from Dwinnell Dam and MWCD's water diversions, including toxic algae blooms, elevated water temperatures lethal to fish, blocked access to valuable upstream habitat, and habitat fragmentation due to dewatering caused by diversions.

Craig Tucker, the Karuk Tribe Klamath Campaign Coordinator, told the Siskiyou Daily News they are joining the lawsuit for "several reasons." (http://www.siskiyoudaily.com/news/x1474278684/WEB-UPDATE-Riverkeeper-files-Dwinell-lawsuit)

“The tribe bases their restoration strategy on science,” Tucker said. “We’ve just completed several studies on the Shasta River and they make it very clear that Dwinnell Dam is the biggest limiting factor to Shasta River coho populations.”

The Tribe does not currently fish for coho salmon, but Tucker said they would like to restore the salmon to abundance so they can fish for them. Recreational and commercial fishing for coho is prohibited in California except for the recreational fishery for landlocked coho at Lake Oroville.

“We are working for the restoration of all anadromous species in the Klamath system. We want to get them off the ESA and into the tribe’s smokehouses,” Tucker stated.

No one from the conservation district office was available for comment at press time. However, in March after receiving the KRK letter, the district issued a statement claiming, “The notice was served without any prior communications from Klamath Riverkeeper or any attempt at informal resolution. 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."

Irrigators constructed Dwinnell Dam in the 1920s and created an extensive canal system to transport Shasta River water east to irrigate crops and serve cattle ranches surrounding the town of Montague. Dwinnell Reservoir (Lake Shastina) also supplies domestic water for the Shastina and Montague municipalities.

In many years, "nearly the entire river is siphoned out of the reservoir for irrigation," lowering Lake Shastina dramatically and reducing river flows to just 10 percent of historic levels, Terence said.

"We're talking about some of the best coho salmon habitat anywhere in the Klamath watershed or the Western U.S. It has been choked and polluted for decades by Dwinnell Dam and Montague diversions, and now it's time to take some big steps to restore it," Terence explained.

"The consequences of doing nothing about the impacts of MWCD's operations are dire," Terence emphasized, citing alarmingly low coho salmon counts in recent years.

Just nine adult coho were counted in the Shasta in 2009, only 44 coho returned to spawn in 2010, and 45 swam home in 2011, according to video fish counts conducted by the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG).

While coho numbers on the Shasta have been very low in recent years, the numbers of fall run chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) returning to the Shasta increased in 2011.

The DFG 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.