Don’t be fooled by the recent rain and cooler temperatures. Most of Oregon and Washington are still experiencing severe or extreme drought.
With many of the region’s reservoirs and streams still far below normal and a warm winter on tap, experts are predicting this year’s drought will likely continue into next year.
On a conference call Thursday, Washington Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said her agency is preparing for the worst: another year of drought that will take hold earlier and take an even bigger toll on the state.
“This historic drought is not over, and we’re already planning for next year,” Bellon said. “We face winter with a huge water deficit. Rains are desperately needed to recharge these reservoirs and even that won’t be enough to get us through next summer. We need winter snowpack – what we call our frozen reservoir – and there’s growing concern we may not get it.”
Projections for this year’s winter temperature and precipitation relative to normal conditions from 1981-2010.
Courtesy of Washington Department of Ecology
Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond said there’s a 10- to 15-percent chance this winter will be just as warm and devoid of snow as last winter.
“There’s been recently some rain and cooler temperatures, but are we out of the woods?” he said. “The answer, I’m afraid, is no. El Nino is rearing its ugly head in the tropical Pacific. It’s of the magnitude and type that is strongly associated with warmer than normal winters around here, and warmer ocean temperatures off our coat, the blob, will be a contributing factor. All in all, the odds are strongly tilted towards another toasty winter.”
Oregon’s outlook is much the same, according to Kathie Dello, associate director of the Oregon Climate Research Institute.
“Nothing is pointing to us having a great winter,” she said. “The warmer-than-normal temperature prediction is the most disconcerting.”
With so many low reservoirs and rivers, Dello said, even slightly below-average precipitation this winter would leave the region with a water deficit going into next year.
By Lorraine Loomis, Chair, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
Water – how much we have and how clean it should be – is on the minds of many these days as the drought rolls on in western Washington and state government remains stalled on updating decades-old water quality standards.
Tribal insistence on more restrictive salmon fisheries this year has turned out to be the right call as the hottest and driest summer we’ve ever seen continues, threatening salmon throughout western Washington at every stage of their life cycle.
With no snowpack, record warm weather and little rain, our rivers and streams are running low, slow and hot. That’s bad news for both hatchery and wild salmon, which depend on plenty of cool water for their survival.
Many returning adult salmon died last year before they could reach spawning grounds or a hatchery, while thousands of out-migrating young salmon died before they could reach the ocean. The deaths of those salmon will be felt by all fishermen several years from now when fewer fish return.
Water temperatures 70 degrees and higher can be lethal to salmon. Many streams already have reached those temperatures with a lot of summer left. Warm water can also create a thermal barrier that prevents salmon from reaching hatcheries and spawning grounds. In addition, salmon are more susceptible to diseases when water temperatures are high.
Salmon are getting some relief from tribal and state hatcheries that use cooler groundwater for incubating and rearing fish. These hatcheries are providing sanctuaries to help salmon survive the drought and fulfilling their role as gene banks to preserve salmon for the future.
The outlook for many tribal fisheries is growing steadily darker as week after week slips by with no improvement in weather conditions. We hope enough salmon will return to our fishing grounds so that we can feed our families and preserve our cultures and communities.
It wasn’t easy for the tribes to convince the state co-managers that tougher fishing regulations were needed this year to protect salmon. In fact, the Puget Sound sport-fishing industry was prodding the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to expand fisheries this summer. But salmon management is not a popularity contest and the effects of our drought are getting worse.
The treaty tribes in western Washington will continue to insist on the highest level of responsible fisheries management and hatchery operations to ensure all of our children have a future that includes salmon.
On the water quality front, the state legislature adjourned a triple overtime session in June without approving Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal for new water quality standards as part of a statewide toxics reduction program.
State water quality standards already are more than 40 years old. The state admits that current standards don’t adequately protect any of us, especially those of us who eat a lot of fish and shellfish. The state has missed every deadline to update the standards as required by the federal Clean Water Act.
Inslee’s toxics reduction program is a good idea. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to prevent poisons from ever getting into our waters than to clean them up afterwards. But to be effective, such a program must first be based in a strong rule of law that will drive the compliance and innovation needed to meet those standards.
The governor is expected to propose a new set of water quality standards in early August. If not, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will step in to help.
It is important to remember that all natural resources are connected. Water quantity and quality are two sides of the same coin. Both are fundamental to the health of people and salmon.
Protecting and restoring salmon habitat improves the overall health of our watersheds, making them more resistant to drought and able to bounce back more quickly from its effects.
To truly protect our water quality and quantity – and to protect and restore the salmon resource – we must continue to work together to restore salmon habitat. At the same time, we should develop strong rules that can support a statewide toxics reduction program with realistic, truly protective water quality standards that are implemented over time.
As a drought tightens its grip on the Pacific Northwest, burning away mountain snow and warming rivers, state officials and Native American tribes are becoming increasingly worried that one of the region’s most precious resources — wild salmon — might disappear.
Native Americans, who for centuries have relied on salmon for food and ceremonial rituals, say the area’s five species of salmon have been declining for years, but the current threat is worse than anything they have seen.
“I grew up always having salmon,” said Lorraine Loomis, fisheries director for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, whose culture is so intertwined with the migrating fish that they’re called the “People of the Salmon.” Salmon feasts once marked every phase of life on the reservation north of Seattle — naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals, memorials to the dead. Now they are few, she said.
“We’re very worried,” said N. Kathryn Brigham, chair of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland, Ore., which helps manage fisheries for the Yakama Nation and the Warm Springs, Nez Perce and the Umatilla tribes in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
An estimated quarter-million salmon, more than half of the spring spawning run up the Columbia River, perished, probably because of a disease that thrives in warm water and causes gill rot, officials said. Normally cool streams in the river basin are 13 degrees warmer than the 60 degrees preferred by salmon, Brigham said.
Salmon in the Northwest come in a variety — chinook, pink, coho, sockeye and chum — and that diversity has helped them survive for eons. When they hatch, some babies stay in place to eat and grow before migrating to the Pacific Ocean. Others swim to the ocean right away.
Adults stay in the Pacific for three to seven years before returning to streams where they hatched by swimming through Puget Sound in Washington or up the Columbia River, which runs from Alberta, Canada, to Oregon.
But as the climate warms, more salmon are starting to move farther north to Canada, experts say. Swimming to cooler waters in the north signals a major shift in behavior for the fish, and public officials are watching the trend with dread.
In addition to their significance to Native American communities, the salmon are worth more than $1 billion annually to each state’s sport fishing and tourism industries, which support tens of thousands of jobs.
Oregon and Washington officials recently closed dozens of recreational and commercial fishing spots. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trucked 160,000 salmon 100 miles from a hatchery in central Oregon to a cooler part of the Columbia River.
As more fish vanish, the Swinomish, whose reservation skirts five bays, rely on handouts from the state and tribal councils. They accept 5,000 to 10,000 pieces per year to freeze, Loomis said.
“There’s just no water,” she said. “The glaciers are almost gone. The snow in the mountains is not good.” Even if salmon survive, but in tiny, remnant populations, “we won’t be able to sustain ourselves.”
Off the coast of Oregon, wild chinook salmon are gathering for a fall spawning run up the Columbia, but experts say there’s a good chance many will never arrive to lay eggs in the streams and brooks where they hatched several years ago.
Besides facing long-standing hurdles such as dams, the fish now will encounter a large patch of warming water. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Rich Johnson said the cooler ocean water probably will signal to the salmon that it’s okay to migrate up the warmer Columbia.
Earlier this year, clusters of dead and dying sockeye salmon were discovered in Oregon’s Lower Deschutes River, a Columbia tributary. Officials counted at least 100 fish but speculated that scavengers ate dozens more.
Scientists fear the chinook will suffer the sockeye’s fate. Die-offs mean that fewer eggs will hatch and hatchlings might not survive the warm water.
“The bleakest, most dire outcome is if this drought is sustained for a couple more years like California,” said Greg McMillan, science and conservation director for Oregon’s Deschutes River Alliance. Some populations “could go extinct,” he said.
But wild salmon have an array of survival tools. The species do not all migrate at the same time, and their hatchlings do not all behave the same. Some remain in shallow streams two years after hatching, while others head for the Pacific.
Scott Pattee stands well over 6 feet, but he’s dwarfed by the tall white tube set up near the Stevens Pass Ski Area to measure snow depth.
Little black numbers marking inches of snow ascend the side of the tube. The top number reads 250 inches, an amount of snow that’s hard to imagine right now.
Most of the mountains around Pattee are green and brown, not white – even though it’s officially still winter until March 19 arrives.
And the snow depth, according to the tower?
“We have about 30 inches,” said Pattee, a water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Normally we would have closer to 150 this time of year. It’s not good.”
Actually, it’s really bad. Record-breaking bad.
Pattee has been monitoring snow levels in Washington for more than 20 years. The data he gathers helps scientist study climate trends, farmers plan their growing seasons, hydropower operators manage their reservoirs and municipalities provide water to citizens.
This year is on track to be one of the lowest snow years on record. Across Washington state, average snowpack is 71 percent below normal levels. In some places, including the Olympic Peninsula, snowpack is 90 percent below normal levels.
Things are looking even worse in Oregon. Statewide, average snowpack is 76 percent below normal levels.
“One of our longest-monitored sites, near Bend, has the lowest snowpack ever recorded, breaking the 1977 record,” said Julie Koeberle, a hydrologist in Oregon with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Bend site has been monitored since the early 1950s.
“All eyes will be pointing on southern and southeastern Oregon if things don’t improve,” Koeberle said. Some of the lowest snow levels can be found in those areas, where water scarcity has created drought conditions in recent years.
However, despite dire warnings about low snowpack, things aren’t looking desperate, yet on all fronts. That’s because the Northwest is seeing normal or above-average amounts of overall precipitation, it’s just coming as rain instead of snow.
“The snowpack is bad but the overall conditions aren’t that horrible. It’s above normal precipitation all over the state, and so we’re in pretty good shape there for now,” Pattee said, adding that the region could see drought later in the summer.
The Bonneville Power Administration manages 31 federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers and provides one-third of the electricity consumed in the Northwest. Mike Hanson, spokesman for BPA, said things are looking normal.
“We’re doing just fine at the moment,” Hanson said, adding that the reservoirs above the dams are at normal levels. The Columbia River’s headwaters are in the Canadian Rockies, which are seeing normal snow levels this year.
“When we’re looking out our windows here and it seems very little snow, mild winter, conditions up at ski resorts are horrible, but that’s not really an indication of the total picture,” Hanson said. “Right now it looks like all systems are running normally and we are closely watching what is happening out there. We feel OK with where we’re at.”
The City of Seattle gets its water supply from the Tolt and Cedar rivers east of the city. Reservoirs managed by Seattle Public Utilities are currently above normal, and it plans to keep them full, even as it anticipates a warm dry spring with little additional rainfall.
“We don’t need snow to have a good water supply as long as it rains, which it has been,” said James Rufo-Hill, meteorologist and climate adaptation specialist with Seattle Public Utilities. “We’ll hold a little more water in our reservoirs and constantly manage that flow. We can meet demands throughout the summer.”
Resource managers, hydropower operators and others have referred to the snow levels and warm temperatures this year as “anomalous.” Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, agrees, but she said it’s an anomaly worth noting.
“It’s a really useful year in the sense that this is the kind of year that all the climate models tell us to expect,” Snover said. “The future looks like this. The future looks like less snow because of warmer temperatures but not necessarily less precipitation.”
Snover said water managers and hydropower operators need to be nimble.
“In many cases, the water managers who are paying attention to conditions can change the way they manage their systems and catch that water as it’s going down the river because it fell as rain instead of snow,” she said.
But for other basins or municipalities that are heavily reliant on surface water, without reservoirs to store it, the lack of snow this year presents a challenge. Places like Sequim and Port Townsend on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula are heavily reliant on rivers that are largely fed by snowpack from the Olympic Mountains, which are at record-setting low snow levels.
In drier parts of the region, meeting irrigation demands for agriculture could also prove challenging later on in the summer and early fall.
Pattee with the Natural Resources Conservation Service also cautioned that the wet, warm spring has started an early growing season, which could provide more fuel for wildfires later on in the dry season. For now he said the biggest impacts of low snow levels this year will be felt by recreationists and fish.
Without the strong pulse of cold snow melt, some Northwestern rivers could prove less hospitable to spawning salmon and their out-migrating young, Pattee said.
Regional water managers will brief Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on the snow situation early next week. Pattee said it’s too early to say if a drought declaration is in order but it is a concern.
“We’re going to have to sleep with one eye open this spring and summer and really keep a close eye on conditions and see which way the wind blows,” he said.
Low warm water conditions from the drought are starting to kill salmon in northern California and southern Oregon’s Klamath Basin — the site of a massive fish kill in 2002.
Sara Borok of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said a survey of the Salmon River on Wednesday found 55 dead adult salmon and more dead juveniles than would be expected this time of year. The reason is low and warm water related to the drought.
Fisheries officials do not want see a repeat of 2002, but there is little to do but pray for rain. Even in the Klamath River, which has dams to store water, there is little available for extra releases.
The Salmon River is a tributary of the Klamath River.
The drought in California is exacerbating the effect that illegal marijuana farms have on the Yurok ’s water supply, and on July 21 federal and state agencies raided several properties on or adjoining the reservation along the Klamath River.
The raid was conducted at Yurok officials’ request, the Los Angeles Times reported, and involved the California National Guard, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Justice’ North State Marijuana Investigation Team, and Yurok police. Operation Yurok, as it was called, was coordinated by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Drug Enforcement Unit.
The Yurok are not the only ones contending with the effects of illegal pot grows on their lands. The Hoopa Tribe has been actively combating incursions as well.
Even without the ongoing and worsening drought, the farms put a strain on Yurok life in a number of ways. Rat poison kills sacred fish and other animals, lower water levels become too warm and unhealthy for salmon to spawn in, and water pressure is just about nil on the reservation.
“They’re stealing millions and millions of gallons of water, and it’s impacting our ecosystem,” Yurok Tribal Chairman Thomas O’Rourke said during the raid, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We can no longer make it into our dance places, our women and children can’t leave the road to gather. We can’t hunt. We can’t live the life we’ve lived for thousands of years.”
Not only that, but access to one sacred ceremonial site is blocked by a pot farm, O’Rourke told the Los Angeles Times. And growers have become brazen enough to trundle supplies to and from the farms in broad daylight.
“We are coming close to being prisoners in our own land,” O’Rourke said. “Everything we stand for, everything we do is impacted.”
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California began hauling 30 million young chinook salmon hundreds of miles toward the Pacific Ocean in tanker trucks to save the fishing industry after a record drought left rivers too low for migration.
Three climate-controlled trucks, each bearing 130,000 silvery three-inch smolts, left a federal hatchery 180 miles north of San Francisco on Tuesday for a sloshy, three-hour drive to San Pablo Bay, where they are held in netted pens to acclimate before release. Officials had said they might need as many as four vehicles.
“Water conditions, because of the drought, are going to be horrible for the fish,” said Harry Morse of the state Fish and Wildlife Department. “Depending on how far those fish have to go, the longer they must travel through the system, the higher the losses.”
The fish taxi is the latest in a series of emergency steps that state and federal authorities are rushing into place as reservoirs ebb one-third below normal and farmers idle thousands of acres. Gov. Jerry Brown has called for a voluntary 20 percent cut in water use and many areas have declared mandatory restrictions. More than 800 wildfires have broken out since Jan. 1, three times more than usual, according to state records, and smog in Los Angeles is worse without winter rains to clear the air.
California’s 38 million people endured the driest year on record last year. The most-populous state has only about a quarter of the average amount of water in mountain snow that melts in the spring to fill lakes and rivers.
The hatchery fish that typically migrate through the Sacramento River Delta to the sea are key to the state’s $1.5 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry, according to the Nature Conservancy. Fish released now will be part of the population that can be harvested in a few years.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which helps set fishing seasons, predicted earlier this month that more than 630,000 fall-run Chinook salmon from the delta are in the Pacific Ocean now. That’s less than last year but more than enough for a normal commercial fishing season, the council said.
The lack of rainfall means that the Sacramento River will prove too shallow and too warm for the tiny fish to survive the 200 to 300 miles of river and tributaries some must navigate to reach the Pacific.
Convoys of four to seven trucks daily will make the trip from the federal hatchery for 22 days during the next two and a half months. In all, 12 million juvenile fish will be taxied from there, along with 18 million raised in four state-owned hatcheries in June. When released from the pens, the tiny fish will migrate to the ocean and mature. They return to the rivers as an adult to spawn.
“Our 2016 fishing season may be riding on the survival of the fish in these trucks,” said Roger Thomas, chairman of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, an advocacy group based in Petaluma. “We know that fish trucked around dangers lurking in the rivers and delta survive at much higher rates than those released at the hatcheries.”
While the state usually trucks some of its hatchery fish to the ocean, this year’s haul will be about three times the usual. It costs California taxpayers $1,500 a week to rent the tanker trucks, and the state expects to spend $150,000 on trucking, including fuel costs, Morse said.
The U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation said last month that it won’t be able to deliver any of the more than 2.4 million acre-feet of water requested by farmers in California’s Central Valley, the state’s most productive agricultural region. An acre-foot is the volume needed to cover an acre of land one foot deep with water.
The Bureau of Reclamation supplies water to 1 million people and a third of the irrigated farmland in California through a 500-mile network of canals and tunnels.
About two-thirds of Californians get at least part of their water from northern mountain rains and snow through a network of state-managed reservoirs and aqueducts known as the State Water Project, which also has said it won’t be able to deliver any of the water requested.
The California Farm Water Coalition said March 17 that farmers probably will fallow as much as 800,000 acres of land because of the lack of water at a cost of $7.5 billion.
Concerns rise over failing fish populations, meaningless water rights and pushback from other governments
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series examining how drought affects Native Americans and their communities.
Drought maps this winter have shaded swaths of the American West in oranges and reds to signify severe, extreme and even exceptional levels of drought.
And exceptional drought gets attention, especially when it hits America’s vegetable basket, California’s Central Valley.
Speaker of the House John Boehner in January stood in his shirtsleeves in a dusty, bare field in Bakersfield. He supported a state bill that would quash salmon restoration in the San Joaquin River delta, joining the cry that scarce water should go to farms, not fish.
President Barack Obama, a month later, stood in his shirtsleeves in a dusty, bare field in nearby Fresno, offering $183 million in aid and announced an initiative on climate change to address larger issues affecting the three-year drought.
But living in the dry is nothing new for Native Americans in the West. Nor is being overlooked.
In wet years as well as dry, many American Indians live in chronic droughtlike conditions, thanks to decades’ worth of dams that hold water back or divert it from reservations which were usually sited on already marginal land.
“We are definitely one of the overlooked groups of people in the U.S.,” said Margaret Hiza Redsteer from her office in Flagstaff, Ariz. A member of the Crow Nation, Redsteer is a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and has been monitoring 18 consecutive years of drought conditions in the Southwest, primarily on Hopi and Navajo lands.
“The California drought is getting a lot of attention right now, and I keep thinking ‘You know, we’ve been facing this problem for a while now’ … [but] we don’t supply the food to the rest of the country, so people haven’t noticed,” she said.
The dry side of reservoirs
Her concerns are echoed in the Great Plains — where reservoirs behind federal dams have displaced Indians — and in Northern California, where once teeming salmon streams shrink as water is diverted south.
During the last century, California constructed a massive system of dams, reservoirs, tunnels and canals to funnel water to the Central Valley, which has become an industrial agriculture wonderland. According to the USGS California Water Science Center, Central Valley agriculture is a $17 billion per year industry that supplies a quarter of America’s food, including 40 percent of its fruits and nuts.
Lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and fruit take tremendous quantities of water, and the dry fields where Obama and Boehner were standing during their media events are often irrigated with water that comes from far away.
In fact, 557 miles to the north, amid the forested ridges that outline the sinuous Trinity River, Rod Mendes reflected about being on the dry side of the Central Valley Project dams.
People need to keep in mind, as [drought] legislation is drafted, that farms can be bailed out but fish populations can’t.
fisheries manager, Yurok Tribe
“For the most part, the Hoopa Indian Reservation is kind of in a drought situation all the time anyway,” said Mendes, who is writing an emergency drought plan for the tribe. “We have a lot of dams in the area. They control the flow of the river whether we’re in a drought year or not. We’re not getting the flows we were getting before the dams.”
A half-century of lesser flows has reduced coho salmon runs to the point they are on federal and state endangered species lists. Officials with both the Hoopa and Yurok tribes say they are concerned that California’s declaration of a drought emergency in January will make things worse by loosening environmental protections known as CEQA, California Environmental Quality Assurance.
“We’re concerned because during the process the tribes really haven’t been consulted with,” said Hoopa Valley tribal chairwoman Danielle Vigil-Masten. “All this legislation that’s getting put through really fast. They have legislation to increase water flows into the Shasta Reservoir. They have other bills to do with the Trinity River. We have to constantly go online and look and try to understand what the information is that we are reading. We have our attorneys on it.”
“People need to keep in mind, as [emergency drought] legislation is drafted, that farms can be bailed out but fish populations can’t,” said Dave Hillemeier, fisheries manager for the Yurok Tribe. “Once you lose the genetics that make up your fish population, they’re gone.”
Salmon returning from the ocean last year faced such obstacles as low flows in the Trinity and Klamath rivers, higher water temperatures, algae blooms from agricultural runoff and even dewatering — stretches that were sucked dry by irrigation or consumption.
“Too much water has been allocated to too many people,” said Konrad Fisher, executive director ofKlamath Riverkeeper. Along the Scott River, an important tributary of the Klamath, Fisher said, “an 18-mile stretch … was completely dry,” because of overappropriation of water rights.
Dry stretches strand returning salmon, keeping them from reaching spawning grounds.
Talking to the elders
Pressure on Northern California water may be especially dire this year. According to the California Water Science Center, “2013 was the driest calendar year for California in 119 years of recorded history.”
Foreshadowing a bone-dry 2014, snowpack in the north ranged from 22 percent to 25 percent of normal by late February. Snowpack provides about one-third of the water used by California’s cities and farms, the center said.
In the Southwest, “It’s a year without a winter here,” Redsteer said from her USGS office in Flagstaff. She has chronicled the worsening scarcity of water by setting up her own weather stations and interviewing up to 100 tribal elders about changes they observed during their lifetimes, which included winters without snow, summers without monsoons and vanishing streams, plants and animals.
Streams on the Navajo reservation have dried up one after another. Without moisture in the ground, perennial grasses don’t grow. Without grass cover, sand dunes begin to migrate and advance on dwellings, roads and grazing land. Dry riverbeds release fine sediment to the winds, and the airborne dust settles on the snowpack of the southern Rockies. Dust absorbs more heat from the sun and melts the snow more quickly.
Is it climate change? “That’s the $10 million question, and frankly it’s a question I don’t think you’ll ever be able to answer. It’d be like trying to claim which cigarette gave the person lung cancer,” Redsteer said.
What can be said, she added, is that drought conditions are intensified by warmer temperatures. Plants don’t remain dormant in winter anymore. They germinate and use up scant moisture. Higher temperatures increase aridity, which steals water from plants through evapotranspiration.
Use it or lose it
But haven’t indigenous cultures in the Southwest long adapted to arid climates?
“First of all, the traditional way of adapting to dry seasons was to move,” Redsteer said. These days, “If you have a reservation, and the reservation is established where there are the most limited water resources in the region, the odds of you being able to make it through dry seasons are stacked against you.”
Indeed, she said, census data shows the reservation population in decline even as there are more Navajo. “There is a notable emigration from the reservation and mostly it’s young people who are leaving because they can get jobs in cities,” she said. This is due in part from the limited, land-based economies on the reservation.
“There’s not a lot of alternatives out there,” Redsteer said.
When it comes to drought planning, she praised the Navajo and Hopi tribes but added, “What is it that we do after the first 10 years?” Redsteer asked. “People on the reservation use one-tenth of the water that people in Phoenix use every day. How do you conserve when you are already using so little? They don’t have lawns, they don’t wash their cars on a regular basis. It’s hard to say, ‘Well, we really need to conserve now,’” she said with a laugh.
And Phoenix, a desert city that glimmers with emerald golf courses and backyard swimming pools when seen from the air, highlights the archaic nature of water laws.
“One of the real ironies is that western water law is ‘use it or lose it’. Phoenix … to keep its Colorado River allocation, has to use that allocation or it will lose its rights to it. So in some ways there’s a disincentive to conserve,” Redsteer said.
The aftershocks of dam building resonate throughout Indian Country, even on the Great Plains.
“It is no coincidence that the major dams on the Missouri are on Indian reservations,” added Gary Collins. Collins is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe who has spent much of his career in natural resource and water issues.
“Actually, the tribes on the Missouri didn’t get the dams, they got the reservoirs,” said Bob Gough, secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, based in Rosebud, S.D. “When the dams were built for flood control, it actually means the tribes were permanently flooded and someone else is in control. That’s what ‘flood control’ means if you are an Indian.”
Collaboration among tribes and federal and state agencies is welcome but is fraught with ugly history such as Indians being flooded out by dams. “It was forced displacement, and that provides the mistrust tribes have with the government,” Collins said.
Some tribes, such as those on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, have fought for more control by having their water rights adjudicated — which clarifies how much water a user has a right to use and who has priority during times of scarcity.
“It was 37 years in the courts,” Collins said. “We are constantly having pushback from non-Indian society wanting more of the tribes’ assets.”
Tribes are first affected and most affected. They are the ones on the ground who sustain themselves with subsistence hunting and fishing and gardening.
Northern Arapaho tribe
With drought, Collins said, “Tribes are first affected and most affected. They are the ones on the ground who sustain themselves with subsistence hunting and fishing and gardening.”
Gough is among the lead authors of a chapter on the effects of climate change on indigenous people — the first time they have their own chapter — in the forthcoming third edition of the National Climate Assessment.
Among the observations: “A significant decrease in water quality and quantity caused by a variety of factors, including climate change, is affecting Native Americans’ and Alaska Natives’ drinking water supplies, food, cultures, ceremonies and traditional ways of life. Native communities’ vulnerabilities and lack of capacity to adapt to climate change are exacerbated by land-use policies, political marginalization, legal issues associated with tribal water rights and poor socioeconomic conditions.”
It often comes down to poverty, Gough said. “When you get to Indian Country, you see that these reservations have already been beset upon with with all sorts of vulnerabilities.”
Poverty often means that even if tribes have senior water rights, “they don’t have a lot of money for infrastructure to actually get the benefits of those water rights,” Redsteer said. It’s not uncommon for tribes to bargain away some of their rights to have water returned via someone else’s pipes.
“It doesn’t do any good to have water rights on paper,” she said.
Meanwhile, as they prepared for the predicted dry summer, people enjoyed the few days of late-winter rain that spattered Northern California.
“I love the rain. I went out and took a walk in the rain,” Yurok chairman O’Rourke said.
“I love the smell of rain,” Hoopa chairwoman Vigil-Masten said. “It seems that when it rains, we are all happy, really. Because you can see the water in the river start to increase.”
An agreement announced Wednesday between ranchers and Native American tribes seeks to resolve contentious water rights issues in the Klamath Basin, a drought-ridden region spanning southern Oregon and northern California.
Amidst a deep drought last summer, the Klamath Tribes and the federal government called on their senior water rights –- meaning they received access to limited water supplies.
As a result, irrigation water was cut off to thousands of acres of Klamath Basin ranchland. This created millions of dollars in losses.
The new agreement seeks reduced water demand by ranchers, along with increased river restoration and economic development for the Klamath Tribes.
Tribal chairman Don Gentry said it wasn’t easy getting all the stakeholders in the Klamath Basin to reach common cause on such a contentious issue.
“It’s nothing short of remarkable that we’ve come to this point,” he said.
Last summer, Larry Nicholson saw irrigation water shut off to his family’s cattle ranch. He hopes that won’t happen again.
“Everybody can have water, where most people couldn’t before,” Nicholson said.
Proponents of the new agreement say it will bring stability to the region and represents an important step forward in a generations-long struggle.
But some conservation groups disagree.
Jim McCarthy of Oregon WaterWatch said the agreement doesn’t go far enough in limiting the amount of water that people will want to withdraw — water that others want to remain in streams to help fish and wildlife . “It’s just not enough water to solve those problems,” he said.
Drought conditions could be worse next summer and fall than they were in 2013. The Klamath Basin currently has a snowpack about 40 percent below what it was last year at this time, according to Natural Resources Conservation Services data.
The new agreement calls for an additional 30,000 acre-feet of water to help fill Upper Klamath Lake –- the source for both the Klamath River and the Klamath Project, one of the largest federal agricultural projects in the country.
This would be accomplished through a combination of reduced ranching through a land retirement program and increased management of streamside areas along Upper Klamath Lake tributaries.
As far as economic development, an additional $40 million would be appropriated for the Klamath Tribes.
Tribal Chairman Don Gentry said this agreement is historic and paves the way for a better economic situation for the Klamath Tribes, in addition to better protecting the natural resources of historic tribal lands.
The new agreement still faces votes by the ranching and tribal communities, and would be folded into federal legislation that is likely to reach opposition in a divided congress.
The legislation would combine the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which stipulates the removal of four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River.
But Gov. Kitzhaber’s natural resources advisor Richard Whitman expressed confidence that the continued leadership of Sen. Ron Wyden could get the bill approved in Congress by the end of the year -– and help solve the water crises in the Klamath Basin.
DAVENPORT, Calif. — By now, water would typically be ripping down Scott Creek, and months ago it should have burst through a berm of sand to provide fish passage between freshwater and the ocean.
Instead, young coho salmon from this redwood and oak-shaded watershed near Santa Cruz last week were swirling around idly in a lagoon. There has been so little rain that sand has blocked the endangered fish from leaving for the ocean or swimming upstream to spawn.
Scott Creek is one of dozens of streams across California where parched conditions have put fish in immediate danger. With the drought, stream flows have been so low that even months into winter, sandbars have remained closed and waters so shallow that many salmon have had their migratory journeys obstructed.
To prevent further stress to salmon and steelhead, state wildlife officials have closed dozens of rivers and streams to fishing, including all coastal streams west of California 1. A storm that soaked parts of Northern California over the weekend should offer a short respite, but experts say streams like Scott Creek will need several inches of rain a week to stay open and connected to the ocean.
Nowhere is the situation more pressing than on California’s North and Central Coast, where a population of only a few thousand coho salmon were already teetering on the edge of extinction.
“This is the first animal that will feel the impacts of the drought,” said Jonathan Ambrose, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist who stood at the sand-blocked mouth of Scott Creek to offer his assessment Wednesday. “It’s going to take a lot of rain to bust this thing open. And if they can’t get in by the end of February or March, they’re gone.”
Historically, hundreds of thousands of Central California Coast coho salmon started and ended their lives in creeks that flow from coastal mountains and redwood forests to the coast from Humboldt County to Santa Cruz.
Of those that remain, most at risk are coho salmon from about a dozen streams on the southern end of the species’ range in North America. If not for a small hatchery near the town of Davenport keeping the population going and genetically viable, coho salmon would probably already be long gone south of the Golden Gate.
The Central Coast population of coho has plummeted from about 56,000 in the 1960s to fewer than 500 returning adults in 2009. Over the last several years it has hovered around a few thousand, according to estimates from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The population was listed as federally threatened in 1996 and reclassified as endangered in 2005. A 2012 federal plan estimated its recovery could take 50 to 100 years and cost about $1.5 billion.
“Coho are the fish that are really in trouble in the state right now,” said Stafford Lehr, chief of fisheries for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Right now, they’re cut off in many of the streams. They’re stuck in pools,” Lehr said. “As we move deeper into this drought, every life stage is going to suffer increased mortality.”
It’s not only Central Coast salmon that are in peril.
To the North, on Siskiyou County’s Scott River, more than 2,600 coho salmon returned this winter to spawn — the highest number since 2007 — but they encountered so little water they weren’t able to reach nine-tenths of tributaries to spawn, said Preston Harris, executive director of the Scott River Water Trust.
In the Sacramento River, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to release more than 190,000 hatchery-reared chinook salmon Monday to take advantage of recent rainfall. Commercial fishing groups, however, are urging wildlife officials to consider trucking chinook downstream.
“We’re in such extremely low-flow conditions that they might as well dig a ditch and bury these fish rather than trying to put them in a river,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.
On the banks of Big Creek, a tributary of Scott Creek a few miles from the coast near Santa Cruz, some 41,000 coho salmon just over a year old are being raised to be released this spring at a conservation hatchery operated by the nonprofit Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project.
For now, hatchery managers can only wait and hope for rains heavy and consistent enough to swell the creek’s waters and give the fish a route to the sea. Barring that, wildlife officials overseeing the hatchery are considering drastic measures, such as bulldozing a channel through the berm of sand or releasing the young fish directly into the ocean.
Salmon have existed more than a million years and have evolved with California’s climate. Scientists say they have survived dry spells much worse than this one.
What has changed in recent generations is the pressure California’s growing population has exerted on the water supply and their habitat. Farms, vineyards and cities now divert stream flows while roads, logging and urban development have degraded water quality.
Coho salmon also have a rigid life cycle that makes them more vulnerable during droughts. After three years, they must return from the ocean to the stream where they were born to spawn and die.
That urge was all too apparent when scientists observed this winter’s returning Central California Coast coho salmon. Hundreds of the roughly 1,000 adults that arrived were schooling in estuaries, waiting for rain to provide them passage upstream.
“Many of these fish may simply die in the estuary without reproducing if they can’t access spawning grounds,” said Charlotte Ambrose, salmon and steelhead recovery coordinator at the National Marine Fisheries Service. “While some rain has come, for coho this year it may be too little too late.”