It’s been quite the month for California fish news. The California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to list two unique species of steelhead and Chinook salmon under the state’s endangered species law. In addition, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved a necessary license transfer to move forward on Klamath River restoration and dam removal. However, intense drought is having serious impacts on California’s river systems and ecosystems (not to mention the rest of the West). For example, one of the Klamath’s most-productive tributaries, the Shasta River, is experiencing dramatically reduced flows, sparking concern.
For decades now, efforts to restore the Klamath River trudged along, but substantive progress only recently began. The larger Klamath watershed was once home to some of the strongest runs of salmon and steelhead in the American West. However, dams and other factors came in and decimated the wild populations. This isn’t news to anyone, but always is important to paint the historical context.
Anyways, the stalled negotiations and challenges of decades’ past gave way in the fall of 2020. The Yurok and Karuk Tribes, Oregon, and California penned a historic agreement to move forward on the largest dam removal project in United States’ history. The project, spearheaded by the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, would remove the Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2, and JC Boyle dams on the main stem Klamath, reconnecting more than 300 miles of productive spawning and rearing habitat. A couple of weeks ago, FERC (the Federal agency tasked with overseeing the interstate transmission of energy) approved the transfer of the dams’ licenses from PacifiCorp to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation.
“This is a crucial and significant step forward in accomplishing KRRC’s core mission to remove the four lower Klamath dams and restore a free-flowing river,” said Jim Root, President of the KRRC Board and a Basin landowner. “I am deeply appreciative to all of the parties who have supported this project over the years, and I wish to especially note the significant and sustained efforts of our Tribal partners,” he said.
The announcement sparked praise in the conservation world as well. CalTrout issued a press release saying, “This is a crucial step towards achieving a free-flowing river and getting the four lower Klamath dams removed, which has been at the core of CalTrout’s mission for over 20 years. The project will constitute the largest dam removal and river recovery effort in U.S. history.”
In addition, Native Fish Society’s Executive Director, Mark Sherwood, said, “In light of the tragic die-off of juvenile salmon exiting the Klamath this spring, these two major actions [California listing two new species of steelhead and salmon and the Klamath dam removal progress] provide much needed hope for brighter days ahead for the Klamath River, its wild fish, and communities.”
While those two events are worth celebrating, the West is in the midst of historic water crises and droughts. For example, California was forced to take approximately 146 individual truckloads of hatchery chinook salmon smolts to the Pacific Ocean between mid-April to early June. I do not intend to get into the issue of hatchery fish, but only attempt to highlight how bad stream conditions are, currently.
As the droughts progress–and in many cases, worsen–water becomes more and more divided and fought over. Take the Shasta River, a tributary of the Klamath, for a relevant example. Historically, the Shasta maintained steady cold, glacial-water flows of 150-200 cubic feet per second that supported a disproportionately high percent of the Klamath’s smolts.
Andy Marx, President of Friends of the Shasta, said that just last year, the Shasta “produced roughly 250,000 smolts in a below average run.” However, the Shasta and its water quality have trended downward for the past few years. The valley’s agriculture diverts a great deal of the Shasta’s summer flows, leaving not nearly enough cold, clean water for the historically-productive ecosystem. Just a couple of days ago, flows in the Shasta were at eight cubic feet per second (down from 150-200 cfs).
Andy is hoping to forge a more equitable distribution of the Shasta’s water between all the users. “I already wanted to help the Shasta but the benefit to Klamath Steelhead was the icing, Andy said. “I believe restoring the Shasta will not only benefit all who depend on Salmon, but also us lowly Steelhead junkies.”
These rivers were the subject of two separate stories this month, but truly show the interconnected nature of rivers, salmonids, and the efforts to restore both. It’s no question that drought (in the short-term) is out of our control, but at the same time conserving water and improving agriculture efficiency is. The continued progress towards restoring the Klamath River is nonetheless exciting, and we will be closely following more developments until the dams come down–expected in 2023.