Groundwater Pumping Gets Protected Look in Scott Valley Management Plan
By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer
The Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors is this week considering adoption of a management plan to govern pumping of groundwater for irrigation in Scott Valley. The plan was written almost exclusively by local agricultural interests and has drawn criticism from the Karuk Tribe, a group of commercial fishermen and Klamath Riverkeeper, the Orleans-based environmental group.
In California law, surface water rights are governed by the state but groundwater authority goes to the counties. Scott Valley, home to large hay and cattle ranches, is an exception because a court in 1980 decided or adjudicated the arrangement of water rights.
Unlike the case of any other water system in the state, that adjudication defined an “interconnected groundwater zone” of areas so close to the Scott River and its tributary creeks that pumping underground would affect flows on the surface.
Last year the Karuk Tribe commissioned a study of pumping by S. S. Papadopulos, a Boulder-based consultant, that showed that late summer flows have dwindled over the years as the amount of pumping has increased.
That study is not mentioned in the new plan which is called the Voluntary Groundwater Management and Enhancement Plan (GMEP). It reflects an effort by ranchers and Siskiyou County to keep control of resource issues—in this case irrigation water—in a legal landscape where they have often been outranked by state and federal agencies.
Ric Costales, Natural Resource Policy Specialist for the Siskiyou County supervisors, said that none of the studies on the area have shown a big impact from pumping.
He did not mention the Papadopluos study but cited the example of Moffat Creek near his own home in Scott Valley. The creek used to support steelhead runs and beaver dams but no longer does. He said there were no wells in the area and no surface diversions and attributed the drying to increased vegetation up slope and global climate change.
When questioned, he discounted the Karuk study and said he had more faith in a study still in progress by Dr. Thomas Harter at UC Davis. Harter is overseas but e-mailed the TRT that the latest report on his studies will be published this month.
The study will include a review of precipitation and streamflow data, hydro-geology, water wells, land use, irrigation methods, water sources and soil properties.
The goal is to develop a modeling tool to examine the connection between groundwater and stream flow to better plan future management scenarios and also to spot data gaps.
Costales, who works for the Siskiyou County Supervisors, said that farmers were well aware of the needs of fisheries in Scott Valley and the groundwater plan lists as its first goal: “Keep control of groundwater supply within Siskiyou County, protect property rights and Scott Valley’s agricultural economy, and develop solutions to resolving environmental-related issues for the Scott Valley aquifer.”
Glen Spain disagrees with Costales. Spain is Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. PCFFA has joined Klamath Riverkeeper in questioning parts of the groundwater plan and is also a plaintiff in a law suit challenging control of the irrigation pumping.
He explained, “We very much support the concept of their effort—a community that wants to manage a resource for conservation. The thrust is something we want to support but the details make it clear that it’s entirely voluntary and has no real substance. It just moves the county closer to water conflict and disaster.”
A prime example of the conflict is the law suit filed in 2010 by PCFFA to challenge the county and the state water board to better regulate groundwater permits and use. The case, which is being handled for PCFFA by the Environmental Law Foundation in Oakland, has been stalled by maneuvers to move it from a court in Sacramento to one in Yreka and by an attempt by the state Farm Bureau to enter the case. Both motions were denied and are on appeal.
The case argues that a legal concept called public trust doctrine should be applied. In an earlier landmark decision, this concept was used to force the City of Los Angeles to extract less water from Mono Lake on the east slope of the Sierras.
In the written comments from Klamath Riverkeeper and PCFFA, there is no need for further study linking pumping to reduced river flows for fish. That, they say, was already established by a study by Thomas Harter and others in 2008.
The 1980 adjudication also acknowledged the connection and created a no-pumping zone but the comments say that zone was drawn too narrowly. The comments also questioned the benefits that could be gained from increase in efficiency through better ditches and different types of sprinkler systems, since much leakage may actually end up back in the aquifer.
The Karuk Tribe also provided commentary for the groundwater plan that praised the overall concept but questioned specifics. Michael Thom, the Tribe’s vice-chairman, wrote, “In particular, we note that the plan fails to address fish flow needs.”
The Karuk input noted that the Scott Groundwater Advisory Committee had no members representing communities in Siskiyou County or elsewhere downstream “that actually have a vested interest in fisheries.”
The Karuk comments also noted that the Scott groundwater plan ignored the Papadopulos study. In its news release on the study, the Tribe said, “Before the adjudication, it was rare for flows to ever drop below 30 cubic feet per second (cfs). In fact between 1942 and 1980, the Scott dropped below 30 cfs on average only 5.6 days a year, mostly in drought years. Between 1980 and 2009, the flows dipped below 30 cfs on average 35 days a year. (In 2012), the river has been below 30 cfs since August 3rd!”
Another source of input to the county came from the National Marine Fisheries Service office in Arcata. The letter adopts an optimistic tone and says that it hopes that ongoing but still unfinished studies by Thomas Harter and also work by Dr. Steve Orloff from UC Davis Extension will improve performance of the groundwater model in a way that “will provide for sustainable agriculture as well as improve instream conditions for salmon.”
The NMFS input paid a special tribute to the value of beaver ponds as habitat for rearing coho salmon, a protected species. They encouraged the participation of Dr. Michael Pollock, a specialist in stream ecology and the influence of beavers with their Northwest Fisheries Science Center.