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California water regulators weigh renewing emergency drought restrictions in the Scott and Shasta rivers

Scott River.png
Ann Marie Ore
California State Water Resources Control Board
A photo of a nearly dry Scott River in Sept. 2021

California water regulators hosted a public forum on Wednesday to collect comments about re-adopting drought emergency regulations for Siskiyou County’s Scott and Shasta River watersheds.

The meeting attracted ranchers, tribal members and environmental groups, all concerned about access to water during the third year of a punishing drought in the state.

“We’ve officially been experiencing drought conditions for a year now and, unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any relief in sight,” said Ann Marie Ore with the California State Water Resources Control Board.

Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a drought emergency for Siskiyou County in May, 2021. Current precipitation levels range from 40-60% of normal throughout the Klamath Basin and the Scott and Shasta River watersheds are “experiencing one of the most severe droughts on record,” according to the agency presentation.

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California Department of Fish and Wildlife
The Scott River watershed

In response, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is requesting the re-adoption of a 12-month drought emergency regulation to protect salmon, steelhead and other native fish.

The Shasta and Scott rivers are home to federally and state-listed threatened Southern Oregon and Northern California Coho salmon, as well as Chinook salmon and steelhead.

While the plight of California’s native fish species often focuses on the larger Klamath and Sacramento rivers, these small Northern California tributaries where fish spawn are equally important to their survival.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife Program Manager Joe Croteau said just 53 adult Coho salmon returned to the Shasta River last year.

“When you look at these numbers and how low they are, we think we are flirting with a Coho salmon extinction in the Shasta River if we don’t take care of them in these drought years,” Croteau said.

ShastaRiverWatershed v3 (no StreamGages).jpg
California Department of Fish and Wildlife
The Shasta River watershed

Renewing the drought emergency regulations would maintain minimum water levels to help fish survive another critically dry water year, extend prohibitions on inefficient livestock watering, and require irrigators to coordinate with local watermasters to manage drought emergency flows.

The proposal drew criticism from agricultural interests, including Theodora Johnson, who spoke on behalf of farmers and ranchers with the Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance.

“We’re really talking about the end of our business and our way of life if we can’t change these regulations,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, Yurok Tribal Chairman Frankie Myers focused on the importance of maintaining stream flows in these farthest reaches of Coho salmon habitat.

“If we don’t engage here, in these tributaries, the key portions of what we need for the overall health and well-being of the Basin as a whole doesn’t work. It all has to come together,” Myers said.

The board will create draft regulation over the next month and release proposed rules during the week of June 6, 2022.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.