My friend Margie died of cancer this summer. She was glorious: insightful, funny as hell, kind. She was the DFW Fish Passage engineer for the north state, including the Scott and Shasta Rivers. She designed and reviewed restoration and fish passage projects, adamantly requiring that they be sound and effective. She did fieldwork up on the Scott and Shasta rivers most of the summer. She thought she had the perfect job.
She also thought that fish management up on the Scott and Shasta Rivers was a clusterfuck. She would tell me stories about the situation up there; basically the agriculture is cattle in irrigated pastures along the river. Irrigation was pretty much a dam across the river to stack up the water high enough to flood the adjacent pasture. She asked me one day if I knew what a push-up dam was. I thought I knew all the kinds of dams, but I’d never heard of a push-up dam. A push-up dam is when you get out your tractor and drive up the middle of the river, pushing all the gravels into a dam. DFW was trying to change that by building them modern diversion facilities, which is better than push-up dams in the river, but not nearly as good for salmon as buying out the cattle and ending the ranching.
Margie came to believe that DFW had abandoned its responsibilities to the salmon up there. Our animus toward DFW Director Chuck Bonham started with the Scott and Shasta River Programmatic Agreement. (Which is how we knew, even before the Voluntary Agreements, that he would gladly sacrifice fish for a political score.) She thought the DFW wardens were too cozy with the irrigators. She thought the Scott and Shasta Rivers were politically neglected because they are so remote.
It didn’t surprise me to find out that the Friends of the Shasta River were pleading with regulators to enforce their curtailment orders on the Shasta River. The same people who have always taken the Shasta River to irrigate pasture to graze some cattle were doing it again, defying the drought curtailments. In this drought, it meant insufficient flow in the riverbed for salmon.
I am late to the story; It looks like the week of illegal diversions is over. The Shasta River Water Association had decided it was worth the penalties to water their cows and stopped when they’d filled their stockponds. I notice a few things:
- We have run out of slack. I’ve been saying for decades that climate change would make us so much poorer that we’d have to choose, and now it is here. We must finally pick between cattle or fish (in this instance). Not-choosing is choosing cattle. As we choose, I do not want to let the priorities of the last 150 years (economic growth or “taming the west”) be the unconsidered default.
- The Scott and Shasta conflicts are where they are because DFW, DWR, USBR and the SWRCB never took their responsibilities to fish seriously. If they had taken a strong enforcement stance all along, cattle ranching would never have been a tenable business along those rivers. The agencies kicked the can down the road, hoping for other solutions or that the salmon would miraculously live without sufficient cold water. It didn’t do any good for the agencies to do some programmatic bullshit and replacement diversions all those years. The salmon have crashed and the conflict is still live. We (Tribes and salmon and Californians who want their rivers to live) would be in a much better place if they had faced the choice twenty or thirty years ago.
- The Voluntary Agreements will fare no better than the Scott and Shasta River Programmatic Agreement because rivers actually need water.
- I am curious how much the use of Twitter changed the situation. Was the State Board aware and taking action without the publicity from Twitter? Did Twitter publicity change the enforcement? Was enforcement why the water agency stopped diverting?
I haven’t been to either the Scott River or Shasta River. I would love to and I would love to see my friend’s work there. Even more than that, I’d love to see salmon swimming up through a culvert she got replaced or resting in boulder weirs she reviewed and approved. She spent her career giving salmon whatever chance she could create. Even rigorously designed diversions and restoration projects aren’t enough; salmon will always need sufficient water too. I’ll miss Margie until I die. I wish I could believe that salmon in California will outlive us both.