A cyclone of salmon, a few hundred fish thick, was recently seen circling at the mouth of the Scott River, a major tributary of the Klamath River, waiting for enough water to swim upstream to the spawning grounds where their lives started.
In the fall, this wait-for-rain holding pattern is common in many salmon-bearing waterways of the region, but Indian tribes on the Klamath River, including the Yurok Tribe, are crying foul about federal management of flows on the Scott River.
After witnessing a massive, circling cloud of salmon Oct. 4 at the mouth of the Scott, about 30 miles downriver from the farming town of Fort Jones, the Karuk and Yurok tribes issued a press release urging the Forest Service to demand more water for fish.
"These kinds of conditions can lead to disease outbreaks and fish kills," said Yurok Fisheries Program Manager Dave Hillemeier in the release.
Concerns are heightened this year with the largest projected return (385,000) of Klamath chinook salmon since 1978.
The U.S. Forest Service has a water right to a minimum flow of 40 cubic feet per second on the Scott River during the month of October, deemed just enough to provide minimum flows for fish reproduction, but this October the river has been far below that level, ranging from 16 to 21 cfs.
The Karuk and Yurok tribes accuse Klamath National Forest officials of sitting by idly while their water right is not met.
"The Klamath National Forest has yet to take any action regarding the reported shortage in water and the obvious failure to protect the fishery," said Karuk Tribal Chairman Buster Attebery in the release.
The problem, according to Forest Service officials, is much more nuanced than that. Klamath National Forest's water right does not have priority over all Scott River water users - only over junior water rights holders. And there isn't enough water being diverted by junior water rights holders that could be called upon to fulfill the right held by the Forest Service,officials said.
Instead, the Forest Service supports other approaches to improving flow like the Scott River Water Trust, which leases water fromfarmers in order to boost flows during crucial times for salmon spawning. This summer the trust leased 320 acre feet in the small tributaries of the Scott Riverneeded for juvenile coho salmon and steelhead to migrate downstream.
"What we look for is, how do you find a win-win solution for fish and farms without threatening the farmers' livelihood?" said Scott River Water Trust Executive Director Sari Sommarstrom.
The Forest Service also supports a current study intended to create a comprehensive groundwater model for how water moves through and is used in the Scott River watershed. The Scott Valley Groundwater Study Plan, prepared with help from the University of California, Davis, also conducts monthly monitoring of 36 wells in the Scott Valley to achieve this test.
Craig Tucker, Klamath coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said that the study, which has been under way for six years, is moving too slowly to address problems on the ground right now.
"They are always doing a study but never using a study to make any changes," Tucker said. The Karuk Tribe is simply asking for the Forest Service to write a letter to the California Water Resources Control Board pointing out that it is impossible for the Forest Service to meet its flow responsibility for fish, he said.
Klamath Forest Supervisor Patty Grantham prefers the grassroots approach being attempted by various Scott Valley users to going through a state regulatory agency.
"In my experience, taking a big regulatory hammer out and hitting people mostly just ends up with every one in court for a decade," Grantham said. "There's more of a lasting solution when the community has a big stake in it."
The Northcoast Regional Water Quality Control Board also supports the UC-Davis groundwater study.
Stakeholders like the forest service and Scott River Water Trust consistently point to this study as the first step in a more comprehensive solution to the water crisis in the Scott Valley.
Morgan Knechtle, environmental scientist of the California Department of Fish and Game, said that as of Monday salmon were no longer "kegged up like they were" at the mouth of the Scott. Flows have improved to 21 cfs up - still well below the 40 cfs the Forest Service deserves but up from 17 cfs when the salmon cyclone was seen. Knechtle added that even during high flows, like 75 cfs measured last year, it can be common for salmon to stage below the mouth. Data collected this fall through Oct. 13 counted 362 chinook salmon at the DFG fish weir at river mile 18 just below Fort Jones. By the same time last year, however, 2,176 chinook had been counted.
Until actual changes are made on the ground, the tribes are likely to keep the pressure on the Forest Service.
Yurok Chairman Thomas O'Rourke Sr. said in an email to the Triplicate: "It is deeply disturbing that the Scott, which has the potential to produce thousands of fish, is in such poor shape. The Forest Service needs to take action now."
Reach Adam Spencer at email@example.com.