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Scott, Shasta river water cuts worry farmers in region

Issue Date: February 2, 2022
By Christine Souza
Farmers who rely on water from the Scott River watershed are expressing concerns about impacts on the growing season due to the state’s curtailment order adopted last August.
Photo/Rick Barnes

Farming and ranching families in the Scott River and Shasta River watersheds say drought emergency curtailment regulations adopted by the state last August will threaten their livelihoods if water supplies run out as the state prioritizes minimum flows to protect threatened coho and other fish.

Curtailments in the Scott River are suspended through Feb. 11, and through Feb. 28 for the Shasta River. Inefficient livestock watering was prohibited for both watersheds through last month.

This is worrisome to Sari Sommarstrom, a retired watershed consultant in the Scott Valley community of Etna whose husband owns a reforestation nursery.

"Scott River and Shasta River agricultural water users—surface and groundwater—will likely be cut off 30% to 70% of water use come June, and for the rest of the year, unless we get a wet water year," Sommarstrom said. "If farming goes away in the Scott Valley, it will affect the entire community, including schools and businesses. It's not just that farmer's personal income, it is how that income multiplies throughout the community."

In what is shaping up to be a third dry year, diverters said they are concerned about the State Water Resources Control Board's emergency curtailment order, which halts water diversions from the rivers whenever a monthly minimum flow target is not met for each watershed.

Erik Ekdahl, State Water Board deputy director of water rights, said Gov. Gavin Newsom's May 10, 2021 drought emergency executive order gave the board expedited authority to regulate water use, including surface water and groundwater.

The state says it is concerned about protecting fish species, such as coho salmon, from extinction.

Farmers say they are concerned about water being severely cut or being unavailable in the hot summer season. Some say they fear for long-term livelihoods.

"There's a lot more thought among some landowners of getting out while the getting is good if this is the way it's going to be," said Siskiyou County cattle rancher and hay grower Rick Barnes of Callahan, who relies on Scott River water. "Selling the ranch has been a topic. It's a thought of mine. I know there's a lot of first-, second- and third-generation people who are thinking maybe it's time to head for the exits."

Locals say morale is low as many consider the stress of staying in business.

"Guys that are usually positive are pretty down right now. It is going to be really tough," said Jim Morris, who raises livestock and field crops in Etna in the Scott Valley.

Shasta Valley rancher Ryan Walker of Montague said the issue is much more acute for Scott Valley diverters because those in the Shasta watershed can still get their highest-priority water rights, but generally, expectations are that diverters will be curtailed "early and heavy."

A larger worry, Walker said, is the weakening of water rights. The region has an adjudicated system and a priority system in the rivers that are not being followed entirely, he added.

"By completely getting rid of some of the stock water rights, you're essentially moving priorities around, and we're very concerned that the water board is going to essentially overrule the century-long priority system that we have," Walker said.

"Before, you understood that if it was a bad year, people were going to be cut off in a particular order," he added. "I don't think that there's comfort that the playing field that you've been living with, really for generations, is at all the playing field we have now."

Sommarstrom argues that curtailing groundwater represents an expansion of the state's authority. She said agricultural wells in the Scotts Valley "are seriously affected," and that she believes it is the first time groundwater is affected by a curtailment order.

She said she believes the local groundwater challenges could have ramifications for policies statewide. She points out that state courts have ruled California has a duty under the public trust doctrine to consider the potential impacts.

"This does apply to groundwater as well as surface water, so this is precedent setting," Sommarstrom said.

While the Scott River adjudication doesn't impact groundwater wells outside of a specified zone, Ekdahl said state water officials can act under certain circumstances to protect a public trust, such as fish populations.

"The whole idea behind public trust management is that you're managing to everybody as opposed to the benefit or outcome of one specific group or person," Ekdahl said.

Ekdahl said it could take the state water board between 10 and 20 years to develop regulations, which would most certainly be litigated.

Meanwhile, related to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, he said local agencies have a 20-year timeline to bring groundwater basins into balance.

"You're looking at those timescales, do we take 20 years to put together a regulation or does the species potentially go extinct?" Ekdahl said.

Ekdahl said fish population figures from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife show that, as of Jan. 3, there were 829 adult coho observed in the Scott River and 1,324 adult Chinook; and in the Shasta River, there were 6,908 adult Chinook (3,000 more than were observed a year ago) and 50 coho.

Sommarstrom said the numbers suggest that farmers are being unfairly targeted for potential water cuts.

"The fish numbers are doing well in the Scott, and the farmers do not deserve this extreme action," she said. "The threat of 100% could be very real come July."

To assist in the short term, Ekdahl said the most recent state budget contains millions of dollars in financial assistance available through the CDFW and the California Wildlife Conservation Board to help landowners pursue projects such as lining ditches to increase water efficiency.

Related to the curtailment order, the state sent letters asking diverters to submit information about their drought response and those who do not respond may face fines of $500 per water right, per day.

Looking long term, locals say additional water storage is needed and is something that all community interests could support.

"Downstream tribes and fishermen think we're the big problem," Walker said. "We think that they're demanding unreasonable demands, and this curtailment has put real stress on that tension that's existed for a long time. Storage is one of the few solutions where it's not a zero-sum game where there's really some potential collaboration."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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