In early spring 2021, it became obvious that California’s rivers and the people who depend on their salmon were facing disaster. The Klamath River forecasts predicted low salmon returns and low allocations to tribal fishers. The mountains that once sported snow are now barren and dry. Reservoirs were still low from previous year’s water deliveries that favored industrial agriculture over salmon and tribal people. There wasn’t enough water for both agriculture and fish.
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 not to use its laws to protect reservoir storage or river flows but to deliver water to agriculture. Poor water policy and an outdated system of water rights threatened salmon and drinking water supplies.
Water justice advocates knew what to expect in droughts past. California’s water inequalities are 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. Native people weren’t citizens at that time. 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 portion of the Central Valley project was primarily focused on damming Sierra rivers to build cities. Both parts of Central Valley Water Project focused on Tribal trust lands, and relied upon Tribal termination policies. This water rights system has resulted in five-fold more water being allocated than it actually exists. Even though climate change is making droughts more common, rice farmers and other powerful farming interests can now use four-times as much water than cities like Los Angeles.
These conditions created the perfect storm in 2021 that could wipe out salmon populations already struggling. Native people consider the loss of salmon to be apocalyptic. Water and salmon are essential for ceremonies, spirituality, sustenance, and physical existence. Scientists have even discovered that water and salmon are the cornerstones of ceremony, spirituality, sustenance, and physical existence. linkedA decline in salmon returns can be attributed to compromised mental health, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and increased risk of death.
“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.”
Many tribes and environmental organizations organized protests, lawsuits, and actions to prevent the worst. They were aware that the state had in the past allowed whole salmon broods to die rather than confront the powerful agriculture industry and address 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 allow nearly 90 percent of endangered winter run Chinook salmon to die. Tribes and environmental groups challenged the SWRCB at public hearings. They even turned in an alternate planFor managing diversions from Trinity and Shasta reservoirs. The state ultimately approved the BOR’s plan. The BOR then flouted the plan every single day this summer, except one, and killed more winter-run Chinook salmon that was expected, along most of the spring- and fall-run salmon in river. The state has not yet taken any action regarding these violations and is currently considering a 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 got worse. The Klamath River was the final resting place for nearly all the Klamath salmon. Ceratonova shasta,Or C. shasta. The C. shastaThe parasite was spread by a host parasite, which thrives in low-water conditions in dammed waters.
Scientists claim that Klamath dam elimination would greatly reduce the likelihood of Klamath dam collapse. C. shasta Because the host parasite can’t thrive in rivers, it is impossible to multiply. In the past, water was released to stop the spread 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 were responsible for the large-scale, uncontrolled fish kill that we witnessed in spring. If we have another die off of this level, we will be discussing extinction.”
Holt explained that the Yurok Tribe has experienced a minimum of a two-thirds decrease in juvenile fish in just a few years because of the juvenile fish kill. She stated that the C. ShastaThe hot zone has grown from a narrow section of the river to more than a hundred miles long, right through Yurok Reservation. This situation is putting a strain upon 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 Klamath’s only spring-fed tributary below the Klamath dams is Shasta River. It is the main producer for fall-run Chinook salmon. The Scott River is the primary spawning ground in Upper Klamath for Coho Salmon (an endangered species). Both rivers dry up by fall most years due to uncontrolled water divertions. They began to dry in the early summer of 2021.
Tribal members and residents began calling in to California SWRCB hearings about the Scott and Shasta rivers. The Karuk Tribe also filed a legal petition to request that the water board take immediate measures to reduce irrigation deliveries to 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 statementAbout why the tribe requested California to stop water diversions from 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 a source of cool water that provides relief for salmon below its confluence to the Klamath River. In 2021, adult spring-run Chinook salmon would normally seek refuge in cool waters of tributary rivers. However, there were few places where temperatures are not lethal for them. They were congregating at the creek’s mouths, making them susceptible to disease or predation.
The Klamath Trinity spring Chinook salmon was listed as endangered in state law. This was due to a petition submitted by the Karuk Tribe. Columnaris(Gill Rot), the same disease that claimed more than 64,000 salmon lives in 2002.
Tribes were allowed to obtain a three day water release to aid these springers in their movement before they died. However, the comment period on a plan that would divert another 36,000 acres of water from Trinity reservoirs into the Sacramento River was closed as the flows were being released. This plan could have a negative impact on future water releases to the Klamath and Trinity salmon as well as 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 very fortunate to not have another fish kill. Continuing to deplete water storage while big ag gets water deliveries for non-essential crops is not acceptable.”
The tribes met weekly with the Bureau of Reclamation throughout the summer to discuss water conditions, and to check 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 Run4SalmonFrom the McCloud River, above Shasta Reservoir, to the San Francisco Bay. To draw attention to the crisis, this year’s run followed the migration of young salmon as they struggled to survive. It also 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 aren’t farmers feeding Americans; it is big agriculture, exporting crops like almonds. Our salmon, a healthy food source, are facing extinction; almonds and pistachios are not.”
Trinity and Klamath Tribes ran with the Winnemem Wintu runners, praying along the route that takes Trinity water into Sacramento River and down to Central Valley industrial farms.
The Winnemem Wintu Tribe, other Sacramento River Tribes, Bay Delta, and Bay Area Tribes ran on horseback, bated, biked, and prayed for salmon. A massive adult fish kill of Endangered Species Act-listed spring Chinook salmon occurred on Butte Creek which is a tributary to the Sacramento River.
Butte Creek was the only California watershed where spring salmon were actually recovering. More than 20,000 adult salmon were returning to Butte Creek for spawning when two fish diseases began to spread. ich columnaris. By the end of the summer, more than 16,000 adult spring Chinook had already 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
The Klamath watershed is home to the Klamath 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. Two months after being listed under the California Endangered Species Act only 100 wild adult salmon had returned to the watershed.
“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 among many tribal members to testify at the state Endangered Species act hearing this spring. Although they did not want for their important food source being listed as threatened, extinction was the only option.
The Run4Salmon ended with an intertribal ceremony north of San Francisco. Following that, the California SWRCB took the decision to stop water diversions from additional Bay Delta farmers and junior water right holders in both the Scott and Shasta Rivers. The Scott River was a series of small pools containing trapped salmon at that point.
We testified in support of 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.”
Save California Salmon is among several organizations requesting that California reevaluate its water rights. We explained this in a letter to Save California Salmon. 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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