Low flows prompt restrictions on Scott River

Last week the State Water Resources Control Board sent notices of water unavailability to 102 water rights holders in the Scott River basin in Siskiyou County.

Extreme drought conditions are causing critically low flows and threatening the survival of coho salmon, an endangered species under both the California and Federal Endangered Species Acts.

Of the 803 water rights in the watershed, only 158 are affected. The largest right holder in the basin, the Scott Valley Irrigation District, is being asked to stop diverting. Right holders under a water unavailability directive can still access their water previously stored in reservoirs, but if that option is unavailable, they will have to find alternative sources such as groundwater or purchased water.

“This two-year dry stretch in the Scott River will likely be the worst in recorded history,” said Alexander Sweat, a water resource control engineer with the State Water Board’s Division of Water Rights. “The 2020 water year was the sixth driest in 80 years, and 2021 is expected to be the fourth. We sent out similar letters last June, asking right holders to stop taking water, but because the watershed is now facing a triple threat of low snowpack, parched soils and climate change, the notices are going out a few weeks earlier this year.”

The Scott River is an important Klamath River tributary for spawning and rearing coho and serves as critical habitat for Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. For a second consecutive year, dry conditions are endangering coho fry, or baby coho emerging from gravel, and juvenile coho that rely on robust seasonal flows to reach a suitable summer rearing habitat. Temporarily halting diversions will leave more water instream and improve habitat and migratory conditions necessary to save coho from extinction and protect spring Chinook salmon, a candidate for the California Endangered Species Act;
steelhead, a state Fish Species of Species Concern; and fall Chinook salmon that provide a valuable resource for commercial and recreational fisheries.

Those who illegally divert water under their priority of right are subject to potential enforcement actions, including fines of up to $1,000 per day.

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