Fish, farms should coexist, activist says

Thomas J. Weseloh/California Trout Environmental groups are suing the state in an ongoing effort to preserve the dwindling populations of coho salmon.

Klamath Riverkeeper group aims to protect scarce coho salmon

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

Environmentalists don't want to abolish ranching along the Shasta and Scott rivers in Northern California, but believe agriculture should be able to coexist with imperiled fish.

So asserts Erica Terence, program director of the Orleans, Calif.-based Klamath Riverkeeper, one of a handful of groups suing the state over management of the rivers.

The groups' efforts to preserve populations of threatened coho salmon have prompted the California Department of Fish and Game to pressure ranchers into obtaining permits for diversions from the two rivers.

"No, I don't want to put farms out of business," Terence said. "I recognize that people make a living -- they don't make a lot of money but just want to get by up there. We eat a lot of things that come from farms.

"But ... what we see up there is a lot of water leaving the stream and not much accountability for who's using it and how much," she said.

Terence said the economies around the lower tributaries depend heavily on healthy fisheries, and she and others point to scientists' reports of rapid declines of coho populations in the Scott and Shasta rivers, which are key spawning grounds.

According to fish counts last year by the Department of Fish and Game, 81 coho returned to the Scott River and only nine returned to the Shasta, all of them male.

And according to a 2008 study in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, the base-flow decline in the Scott River was larger than that of other area streams.

Environmental groups estimate that more than 60 percent of the decline is attributable to "local" factors, including a doubling of irrigation withdrawals since the 1950s, Terence said.

Part of the problem, she said, could be ground water usage -- a hot-button issue for property rights advocates. While she acknowledged state policy changes may be needed to regulate ground water, "shorter-term solutions" can include metering of pumps, she said.

"The solution for us is leaving a minimum amount of water in the stream" for fish, she said, adding that Fish and Game should have been working years ago to determine how much water that is.

"We don't have the science to know exactly how much water is required to keep the fish in the stream," Terence said. "We're still trying to catch up and figure that out, and we're all going to feel the pinch while we figure it out."

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