Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

A legal settlement announced Monday between California's second-largest Indian tribe, an environmental group and a water district that operates dams and diversions on the Shasta River has the potential to improve salmon runs throughout the Klamath Basin.

The Karuk Tribe and Klamath Riverkeeper jointly announced Monday that they reached a settlement with Montague Water Conservation District dismissing litigation the groups filed in August 2012 that alleged that the district's dams and diversions on the Shasta River lead to the illegal killing of endangered coho salmon.

The new water management strategy outlined in the settlement will guarantee water for irrigators as well as increasing the amount of water that will be released from dams for the benefit of fish.

"We worked hard to find a solution that would start the fisheries restoration process but keep our neighbors in agriculture whole," said Karuk Chairman Buster Attebery in a press release.

The Montague Water Conservation District has historically diverted 22,000 acre feet of water a year on average, according to the Karuk release. The settlement establishes a release of 20,500 acre feet of water for irrigation with the possibility of less in dry years and more during wet years.

The Shasta River is considered by fisheries biologists to be one of the most important spawning tributaries in the entire Klamath River system, according to the Karuk release, but dam diversions have kept the river from producing salmon at its full potential.

"Since Dwinnell Dam was built in 1926, nearly the entire river has been diverted, leaving salmon high and dry. This has been a key factor in the decline of ESA listed coho salmon," said Leaf Hillman, Karuk Department of Natural Resources director in the release.

While salmon are currently given only a few hundred acre feet annually from the Dwinell reservoir, according to the release, the settlement outines that 2,250 to 11,000 acre feet of water will be released for fish eacy year depending on rainfall and snowpack.

"This is a big increase in flows for fish and we expect the fisheries benefits will be seen immediately," said Toz Soto, Karuk Senior Fisheries Biologist, in the release.

Jim Simondet, Klamath Branch Supervisor for National Marine Fisheries Service, which is tasked with bringing back endangered species like coho salmon, said that the water allocation and restoration projects outlined in the settlement will "align well with our strategy for recovering coho salmon."

"NOAA Fisheries is looking forward to working with the settlement parties to implement the settlement measures," Simondet said.

Improved habitat and river conditions that will come from the settlement has the potential to benefit all of the salmon populations throughout the Klamath system, including fall Chinook, which are commercially harvested in some years by the Yurok Tribe in Del Norte County.

During large salmon returns in recent years, Yurok Tribal members have made millions of dollars harvesting Chinook in the Klamath River estuary.

The water management strategy in the settlement is temporary until Montague Water Conservation District develops a long-term flow plan that aligns with the Endangered Species Act, a process that includes public comment and will begin in late 2014, according to the release.

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