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Native People in California Are Fighting Water Policies That Imperil Salmon

California’s outdated water rights system favors industrial agriculture over salmon and Native people.

Baby Chinook salmon are seen fighting for fish food in a pool at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery in Gold River, California, on Sunday, November 17, 2019.

In early spring 2021, it became obvious that California’s rivers and the people who depend on their salmon were facing disaster. Forecasts for the Klamath River predicted some of the lowest salmon returns on record and low allocations for tribal fishers. The once snow-peaked mountains stood bare and parched. Reservoirs were still low from previous year’s water deliveries that favored industrial agriculture over salmon and tribal people. There was not going to be enough water for both fish and agriculture.

Spring and winter run Chinook and Coho salmon were nearing extinction in many watersheds, yet the state was doing little to nothing to preserve water for California’s salmon runs, which were quickly becoming casualties of the state and federal governments’ destructive water infrastructure.

California was poised to deliver water to agriculture rather than use its own laws to protect reservoir storage and river flows. Salmon and drinking water supplies were threatened as a result of poor water policy and an outdated water rights system.

Water justice advocates knew what to expect from previous droughts. The issue of water inequality in California is not new. California’s water rights system is a holdover from the California gold rush, a time when neither women nor people of color could own land or vote. During this time, Native people were not citizens. In fact, California’s first governor informed the legislature that “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between races, until the Indian race becomes extinct.” Now even though Tribal water rights are encoded in the law, California largely ignores these rights.

Similarly, California’s federal Central Valley Water project, which includes Shasta and Trinity Reservoirs at the headwaters to the state’s largest rivers, were built exclusively to benefit large industrial agricultural interests in the arid southern Central Valley to aid development. The state part of the Central Valley project largely focused on damming Sierra tributaries to build cities. Both parts of the Central Valley Water Project targeted Tribal trust lands and relied on Tribal termination policies. This water rights system led to a situation where five times as much water is allocated than exists. Now powerful farming interests like rice farmers can use four times as much water as cities such as Los Angeles, even as climate change is making droughts commonplace.

In 2021 these conditions created the perfect storm capable of obliterating already struggling salmon populations. For Native people, the loss of salmon is apocalyptic. Water and salmon are the cornerstone for ceremony, spirituality, sustenance and physical existence. Scientists have even linked compromised mental health, as well as increased diabetes, heart disease and obesity to dwindling salmon returns.

“What many don’t understand is that California is a salmon state, and what happens to the salmon happens to us,” said Chief Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “What happens to the people if salmon runs are nearing extinction, and if the rivers are dangerously low and full of algae? Not only did Newsom and the state fail to take any actions to protect reservoir’s storage or river flows in Northern California this year, they actually tried to say that actions like building Sites Reservoir and voluntary agreements for water withdrawals are drought measures. These proposals benefit industrial agriculture which uses 80 percent of the state’s water, not the North State or Tribal communities. Salmon benefit us.”

The dire state of the salmon, in addition to quickly dwindling reservoir storage, led many tribes and environmental groups to organize actions, lawsuits and protests to try to avert disaster. They knew that in the past, the state chose to let whole broods of salmon die rather than challenge the powerful agriculture industry and deal with its outdated water rights system.

Bad water decisions during the 2014-2015 drought killed over 90 percent of the Sacramento River’s winter run salmon babies and eggs, and killed almost all of Klamath River’s juvenile fall chinook salmon for three consecutive years.

The issue came to a head at the height of California’s drought last spring, when the federal Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) proposed to keep the Trump administration’s plan in place for managing the Central Valley Water Project, and turned in a temperature management plan (TMP) for the Shasta Reservoir, which violated the Endangered Species Act, to the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) for the Shasta Reservoir. This plan would let almost 90 percent of the endangered winter run Chinook salmon die. Tribes and environmental groups confronted the SWRCB in public hearings and even turned in an alternate plan for managing diversions from the Shasta and Trinity reservoirs. Ultimately, the state approved the plan put forward by the BOR. The BOR then violated the plan every day this summer but one and killed even more winter-run Chinook salmon than expected, along with most the spring and fall-run salmon in the river. The state has yet to take any action for these violations and is currently considering another plan to violate state water quality laws.

My organization, Save California Salmon, a grassroots group dedicated to restoring rivers through restoring flows and salmon habitat, removing dams and improving water quality throughout Northern California, teamed up with tribal representatives to hold a virtual “State of the Salmon” event in May to inform the public about the looming disaster and the need to take action.

At the event, Amy Cordalis, attorney for the Yurok Tribe, explained, “Our salmon are in the poorest condition they’ve ever been in and that’s hard as a Tribal person to even say, to even acknowledge because that hurts us to our core. Many people know that the Klamath River was once the third-largest salmon producing river in the whole west … now it’s very hard to acknowledge that there are so few fish left.”

As spring progressed, the situation worsened. Almost all of the juvenile Klamath salmon died in the Klamath River from a disease called Ceratonova shasta, or C. shasta. The C. shasta was spread by a host parasite that thrives in the low water conditions in dammed watersheds.

Scientists have said that Klamath dam removal would greatly reduce C. shasta numbers because the host parasite cannot thrive in flowing rivers. In past years, water has been released to stop the spread of C. shasta. In 2021, however, the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees water resource management, denied the Yurok Tribe’s request for water releases, leaving many tribal biologists with the morbid job of counting dead salmon.

“I have worked for Yurok fisheries for 23 years and extinction was never part of the conversation, but over the last five to seven years, there’s been an overall decline within the lower basin,” Yurok Tribal biologist Jamie Holt said. “We have seen increased water temperatures, longer durations of high temperatures and lack of river flow leading to disease distribution. These factors led to the large-scale fish kill we witnessed in the spring. If we have another die off of this level, we will be discussing extinction.”

Holt explained that the Yurok Tribe has seen at least a two-thirds reduction in juvenile fish in only a few years due to the juvenile fish kill. She said the C. Shasta hot zone has gone from a short section of the river to over a hundred miles long, right through the middle of the Yurok reservation. The situation is taking a toll on tribal biologists.

“My feelings are equal parts anger and sadness. As a scientist, this is so frustrating as so many people have called out the mismanagement of the river and said what needs to happen for so long,” Holt said. “As a Yurok person I was put here to take care of these fish. I feel like we are really sinking here.”

Meanwhile, downriver alfalfa farmers in two major salmon tributaries of the Klamath River, the Scott and Shasta rivers, started irrigating their fields in early spring without the restrictions that the BOR’s Klamath Irrigation Project irrigators faced. River flows dropped quickly. The Shasta River, the only spring-fed tributary of the Klamath below the Klamath dams, is one of the main producers of fall-run Chinook salmon, the main salmon run that still feeds the Klamath Basin tribes. The Scott River is the main spawning ground in the Upper Klamath for Coho Salmon, an endangered species. Most years, both rivers run dry by fall due to uncontrolled water diversions. In 2021 they started going dry in early summer.

The dire situation on the Scott and Shasta rivers nudged tribal members and local residents to start calling into every California SWRCB hearing, and for the Karuk Tribe to file a legal petition requesting that the water board take immediate action to curtail irrigation deliveries in the Scott Valley.

“The worst water conditions in history led federal agencies to shut off 1,300 farms in the Upper Basin, but in the Scott Valley water users continue business as usual,” Karuk Chairman Russell ‘Buster’ Attebery said in a statement about why the tribe asked California to curtail water diversions from the Scott River. “They are dewatering the last stronghold of Coho salmon in the Klamath Basin driving them to extinction.”

In the Trinity River — the Klamath’s largest tributary and the only Klamath River tributary that is diverted into California’s Central Valley Water Project — the Hoopa Valley Tribe warned the Bureau of Reclamation that the river was suffering unusually high temperatures and was experiencing a toxic algae bloom. The Trinity is normally relied upon as a cool water source offering relief to salmon below its confluence with the Klamath River. In 2021 adult spring-run Chinook salmon that would typically seek refuge in cool tributary waters had few places to go where water temperatures are not lethal. They were crowding at the mouths of creeks, making them vulnerable to disease and predation.

The Klamath-Trinity spring Chinook salmon, which had recently become listed as endangered under state law due to a petition by the Karuk Tribe, were beginning to be affected by Columnaris (gill rot), the same disease that killed more than 64,000 adult salmon in 2002.

Tribes were able to get a three-day water release to help these springers move before they died. However, as the flows were being released, a comment period on a plan to divert another 36,000 acre-feet of water from the Trinity reservoirs to the Sacramento River closed. This plan threatened future water releases for the Trinity and Klamath salmon and drinking water sources.

“Sending water out of the Trinity River system is bad enough, but to send additional water out of basin during an extreme drought leaves our salmon even more vulnerable,” said Allie Hostler, Hoopa Tribal member and advisory board member of Save California Salmon. “To make it through this dry season, we needed to fight to retain at least 600,000 acre-feet behind Trinity Dam. We were lucky we did not see another catastrophic fish kill. Continuing to deplete water storage while big ag gets water deliveries for non-essential crops is not acceptable.”

All summer the tribes met with the Bureau of Reclamation weekly to discuss water conditions and to check temperature and water quality.

“The Hoopa Valley Tribe has fought since time immemorial to retain cold, clean water in the Trinity River,” Chairman Joe Davis said. “Although we’ve won several landmark cases, the pressure continues to rise as we see our salmons’ health dwindling and more demand for our cold, clean water. We are prepared to continue our fight and keep Trinity River water in the Trinity River system.”

By the time the water year was over in October the Trinity River’s reservoirs carry over storage was drained to last than 29 percent.

As the fight for California’s water raged on, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe began preparations for its 300-mile Run4Salmon from the McCloud River above the Shasta Reservoir to the San Francisco Bay. This year, to draw attention to the crisis, the run followed the journey of the outmigration of young salmon as they struggled for survival, and included a Trinity River connection run.

“Run4Salmon is a way to get people onto the water, to see how the water is treated, where it is exported, and to help people think outside the box about water,” said Chief Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “Many people think the water is exported for drinking water, but it is not; it is mainly diverted to industrial agriculture, which continues to expand. These are not farmers feeding Americans, it is big ag, exporting crops like almonds. Our salmon, a healthy food source, are facing extinction; almonds and pistachios are not.”

Trinity and Klamath Tribes ran and prayed with the Winnemem Wintu runners along the route that brings Trinity water into the Sacramento River and then down to industrial farms in the Central Valley.

As the Winnemem Wintu Tribe and other Sacramento River, Bay Delta and Bay Area Tribes ran, rode on horseback, boated, biked and prayed for the salmon, a massive adult fish kill of Endangered Species Act-listed spring-run Chinook salmon unfolded on Butte Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River.

Butte Creek was the one watershed in California where spring salmon were actually recovering. Over 20,000 adult spring salmon were returning to Butte Creek to spawn when they began to die from the outbreak of two fish diseases, ich and columnaris. By the time the summer was over, at least 16,000 adult spring Chinook died in Butte Creek. Local advocates blamed Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) dams and diversions for the fish kill.

“We have to allow fish to swim into the upper watershed and make sure that the water is cold by not diverting it out of the stream. What a tragedy it is to lose so many fish when there’s available habitat and available water and a failing PG&E hydroelectric system is the only thing in the way,” Allen Harthorn, executive director of Friends of Butte Creek, told Sacramento News and Review.

In the Klamath watershed, the annual Salmon River Spring Chinook Cooperative Dive – an event at which trained divers count all the spring Chinook and summer steelhead in the Salmon River — had even bleaker news. Less than two months after their listing under the California Endangered Species Act, only 100 wild adult spring salmon, once the predominant run in the watershed, had returned

“The cultural significance of the Spring Salmon is beyond Euro-American conception. It’s more than just a policy trying to get passed through,” said Hoopa Valley Tribal member and Karuk Spring Salmon Ceremonial Priest Ryan Reed. “The Spring Salmon are our relatives who are facing extinction, and a part of our lifestyle, cultural longevity and the survival of my people.”

Reed was one of many tribal members that testified at a state Endangered Species Act hearing this spring that the last thing they wanted was for such an important food source to be listed as threatened; however, extinction was a worst option.

Right after the Run4Salmon concluded with an intertribal ceremony just north of San Francisco, the California SWRCB made the decision to finally cut off water diversions to additional Bay Delta farmers and to junior water right holders in the Scott and Shasta rivers. By that time the Scott River was only a series of pools full of trapped salmon.

We testified in favor of the curtailments at a State Water Board hearing. We explained: “These curtailments are vital and coming a little too late. Fishermen and tribes are facing incredibly huge losses over and over again.”

Due to the water inequalities that climate change is highlighting, Save California Salmon is one of several organizations asking for the state to reassess water rights in California. As we explained in a letter to the Los Angeles Times editor in June, “Who gets clean water in California is a social justice issue.… The climate crisis highlights the fact that California has to reassess its antiquated water-rights system. Cities, native people and rivers should not continue to be without water while farmers flood their land.”

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