Updated: Aug 30
Take action! We have an opportunity to take one small easy step with a high likelihood of success! We could be seeing environmental improvement in the Shasta and Scott Rivers and likely spillover into other North Coast Rivers too. Poor water quality and quantity are killing the Scott and Shasta Rivers, where a large percentage of Klamath salmon need to spawn and rear.
The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (Water Board) will be making a decision in April to either up the ante on protecting the rivers from warm and polluted runoff from agricultural uses and call for real progress, or kick the can down the road for another 2.5 years. They are leaning towards real progress, but need back-up.
The Scott and Shasta Rivers provide important habitat for endangered salmon fisheries. The Scott River was historically a stronghold for both coho and Chinook salmon in the Klamath; however, now most of the premier spawning ground dries up and remains inaccessible during Chinook migration and is often de-watered during juvenile salmonid out-migration. The Shasta River also held large runs of Chinook and coho salmon. Now, because of dams and diversions, this largely cold water, volcanic spring-fed river becomes lethal to fish through most of the summer.
The Shasta River is still recognized by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council as the most important Fall Chinook producing tributary in the Klamath Basin. It has been the mainstay of tribal, sport and commercial fishing both in the Klamath River and for coastal communities. As its ability to produce huge numbers of salmon has declined, tribal, sport and commercial fishing have slowly withered and in some cases, died. The ability to produce salmon in commercial quantities was based on the presence of summer-long flows of clean cold spring water from Mt. Shasta. As instream flows have been diminished by agricultural diversion, and water quality degraded by irrigation tailwater returns, salmon and the people dependent on them have suffered.
The Scott River is an equally vital home for both Chinook and federally threatened Coho. As one of the last North Coast rivers without a major dam, and sporting miles of ideal salmon habitat, it could produce vast numbers of fish. But pollution and over-pumping have left the Scott with a fraction of its historic fish populations.
Under the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act (and only as a result of a lawsuit forcing the Water Board to act), the Shasta has been listed as impaired for dissolved oxygen (“DO”) since 1992, and temperature since 1994. Similarly, the Scott was listed as impaired for sediment in 1992, and temperature in 1998. Despite those listings, management of these rivers has failed to make the changes needed to meet the water quality standards necessary to adequately support salmon for over 30 years.
The Water Board is responsible for developing regulatory programs to reduce discharges of pollutants such as sediment and high temperature runoff to levels that will not result in impaired waters. The amounts allowed are defined as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for pollutants for each stream. Both streams were allowed 40 years in which to meet the TMDL goals of no longer being impaired, beginning with TMDL adoption in 2006.
The Board could use any of several formal paths for requiring compliance with the TMDL. But it has chosen to issue what is called a Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements (Waiver). Waivers are supposed to come with several requirements, including meeting water quality requirements, monitoring to verify the program is working, and being in the public interest. Any agricultural regulatory program also has to be in compliance with Water Board policies that require strict time schedules for meeting water quality requirements, a high likelihood of success, and that already high quality waters do not degrade.
But the Waiver that the Water Board would like to renew relies on more or less voluntary compliance by each individual to meet general guidelines created by the Water Board. With this waiver, lacking any real enforcement mechanisms or timelines or adequate site specific monitoring, things tend to slide, hence 30+ years and inadequate progress for these rivers. The Board’s waiver approach could work but only if backed up with teeth that bite and measurable outcomes.
Unfortunately, Water Board staff wants to continue allowing the operations that are resulting in poor river conditions by extending the existing Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements for another five years, which it has done every five years since 2006 when formal TMDL standards were established. The Water Board staff have reasons for why they have not prepared a new and enforceable waiver – fires in Santa Rosa, Covid disruptions, etc. but those past issues don’t justify 2.5 more years of inadequate actions.
We need your help to speak up for the Scott and Shasta Rivers (and there-by for all other rivers in similar circumstances) by asking the Water Board to expeditiously develop legally enforceable waiver requirements that will put us firmly on the path to water quality changes necessary to support salmonids that are on the brink of extinction as soon as possible. And for this, expeditiously means developing new waiver language within the next year, not 2.5 years.
If you are able to also make a brief (likely 3-minute) public comment at the Water Board Hearing on April 6, 2023 at 9am, please complete the virtual speaker card available here.