Shasta River Deal Struck

By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune

Environmentalists, irrigators, and tribal leaders struck a deal that guarantees minimum levels of sustained water releases for endangered Coho salmon on the Shasta River.

The agreement comes less than 10 months after the Karuk Tribe and environmental group Klamath Riverkeeper filed suit against Montague Water Conservation District (MWCD), which operates Dwinnell Dam and supplies water to farmers in the Shasta Valley.

Konrad Fisher, executive director of Klamath Riverkeeper, said the settlement “requires the operators of Dwinnel Dam and the associated irrigation facilities to release water for fish on a sustained basis for the first time since the dam was built in 1926.”

The settlement reached on Friday, December 20, ends the lawsuit which accused the MWCD of violating Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for ESA-listed Coho salmon.

The MWCD Board of Directors denied the accusations.

“The MWCD’s water facilities, the very ones threatened by Riverkeeper’s lawsuit, are critical to the long-term recovery of the fish,” the Board wrote. “In fact, the MCWD has done as much as any other entity in the Shasta River to help recover and enhance the salmonid fishery in the Valley.”

A major factor hampering restoration efforts in the area is the large amount of water lost from seepage from the lake behind Dwinnell Dam, Lake Shastina.

Around 60,000 acre-feet of water is captured each year, while only about 22,000 acre-feet of water is diverted on average from the lake to irrigation projects.

Most of the rest was simply lost; seeping away into the underlying rock formed from water-porous lava avalanche debris from the Mt. Shasta volcano, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Fisher said, “This settlement allows the allocation of water to fisheries that would otherwise have been lost to seepage from the reservoir.”

Under the terms of the settlement, between 2,250 to 11,000 acre-feet of water will be released per year to benefit the fish, depending on how wet the previous year was. Around 20,500 acre-feet will be diverted for irrigation; less in dry years, and more in wet years.

Karuk Tribal Chairman Russell “Buster” Attebery said, “We worked hard to find a solution that would start the fisheries restoration process, but keep our neighbors in agriculture whole.”

The settlement agreement also requires the MWCD to develop a long term flow plan, work to restore fish habitats under a formal ESA permitting process starting in 2014, and reimburse Klamath Riverkeeper and the Karuk Tribe for $550,000 in legal fees over the next six years.

The MWCD Board of Directors issued a statement saying they had no choice but to settle. “The financial reality was that MWCD had to settle the lawsuit or permanently close its doors.”

In return, the Tribe and Riverkeeper agreed to not bring any more lawsuits against the MWCD for the next 30 years over removal of the Dwinnell Dam, construction of fish ladders at the dam, or fish passages beyond Lake Shastina.

The MWCD Board praised the Karuk Tribal Council, who they said “eventually empathized with the irrigation district and the citizens of the City of Montague, many of whom belong to the Karuk Tribe, and sought ways to find a resolution.”

Fisher said, “It was a compromise we had to make.”

Those conditions didn’t sit well with Felice Pace, a local resident, environmental activist, and author of KlamBlog. He criticized the settlement as a “sell out” and said it would prevent Riverkeeper and the Karuk Tribe from advocating for Shasta River restoration.

“Dwinnell Dam is in violation of the Clean Water Act. The CWA should be used to bring the dam into compliance or, if that is not possible, force removal,” Pace said.

Craig Tucker, Klamath coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, defended the settlement agreement. “Given the court, the judge, and all factors one must consider when fielding litigation, we felt the terms of the settlement were a better long-term deal for fish than going to court.”

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