Wary landowners hear DFG ask for voluntary efforts
By Steve Adler
After pursuing policies that led to animosity and lawsuits from landowners along the Scott and Shasta rivers, the California Department of Fish and Game tried a different approach during a meeting in Fort Jones last week. The department sought voluntary actions from farmers and ranchers, who said they appreciated the department's more conciliatory manner but remain wary.
The issue involves coho salmon, which are listed as threatened under federal and state Endangered Species Acts. The migratory fish spawn in the Klamath River and its tributaries in the Scott and Shasta valleys near California's northern border.
At last week's meeting, DFG officials met with about 100 area landowners to provide an update on the current status of the coho salmon and request that landowners temporarily reduce water diversions in certain locations to protect juvenile salmon.
What took place at the evening session at Fort Jones City Hall was a far cry from the manner in which DFG had been working with ranchers in recent years, according to Scott Valley rancher Jim Morris, who attended the meeting.
"I felt like they came with their hat in their hand," he said. "They were asking instead of telling. There was absolutely no threat of regulation. There was no attempt at intimidation. They didn't talk about enforcement in any way and I thought they defused what could have been a very volatile meeting."
Morris, a past president of the Siskiyou County Farm Bureau, called the attempt at conciliation by DFG a "good first step," but noted that the state officials should not expect the animosity on the part of area farmers to be defused by one meeting.
"I had an opportunity to speak with most of the presenters from Fish and Game. I told them it was very good of them to come and offer the olive branch and it should not surprise them that it was slapped out of their hands. People are frustrated and they don't trust the department because of the way that they have been dealt with for the past few years," he said.
Coho salmon return to rivers and tributaries on a three-year cycle and the current cycle is one of the best in recent years, following two years with low fish counts. According to DFG, more than 800 coho salmon spawned in the Scott River and its tributaries in 2011, resulting in a very high population of juvenile fish.
"Protecting these fish is an essential step in recovering the species," DFG said in a memorandum announcing the meeting.
As streams have dried naturally during the past several weeks, the department said it has been performing annual fish rescue activities by removing coho and other fish species from drying sections of streambed and relocating them. So far this season, nearly 3,000 juvenile coho have been captured and relocated from Kidder and Patterson creeks, the department said.
"DFG staff believes fish rescue will be required in other tributaries of the Scott and Shasta rivers unless water for these fish is made available," the department added.
Morris said that the DFG request was to reduce diversions only in areas where the fish are spending the summer.
"They would like for us to be aware that if we turn on and shut off ditches rapidly, those fish might not have the opportunity to retreat back upstream, so they want us to allow some water to bypass the ditches so those fish can retreat back up the stream," he said. "They would also like us to let them know so they can go in and rescue those fish from pools if necessary."
Morris said that this approach by DFG is what it should have been doing all along and that the landowners also want to see the fish runs preserved.
"I know that people want to do good things for fish, but today they don't want to do good things for the department because of the way that things have been happening over the past few years," he said. "I think they will get some positive response. They will have some water users who will do what DFG has asked them to do, but some won't just out of principle."
The Siskiyou County Farm Bureau sued the department in March 2010, after DFG notified farmers and ranchers in the Scott and Shasta valleys that they would have to obtain Streambed Alteration Agreements in order to exercise their water rights. The Farm Bureau lawsuit said DFG is trying to create a "fundamental change" that would give it broad new authority to oversee water rights—a function already performed by courts and by the State Water Resources Control Board.
A hearing in the case is scheduled next month in Siskiyou County Superior Court in Yreka.
Given that background, Morris said, farmers and ranchers have a hard time trusting the department, despite the tone of last week's meeting.
"If they will continue down this line, this is an excellent way to mend that relationship that has been breached. I think the department is realizing that they can get a lot further if they come in a conciliatory manner rather than a threatening manner, which is the way it should be anyway."
Morris said that as long as DFG works with area landowners on recovering the species in a way that allows them to do business in a reasonable manner, most of them are willing to cooperate.
"It is going to take a long, long time for DFG to regain trust and redevelop that good relationship with landowners, but I think as long as DFG continues in this tone, it can happen," he said. "DFG has caused enough negativity in our community that I think it is going to take awhile for that to be dismantled. It goes very deep in our community and it was built over time and it will take more time for this to be reversed."
(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.