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Climate Change – a Klamath Wildcard

by Felice Pace June 6, 2008

If you tune in to “the news” you’ve heard a constant stream of reports and read a ton of articles about climate change impacts. In the American West these reports all tell of diminished water supplies; some predict that there will be pervasive water rationing in the West by the year 2020. Close to home, data and studies from the Sierra Nevada Mountains indicate that more precipitation will fall as rain and less as snow. As a result, more frequent and larger floods are predicted. Diminished mountain snowpack will mean less spring run-off to fill California ’s reservoirs. Some officials – including California ’s governor – are calling for new dams and new reservoirs to capture more run-off. These proposals – and alternatives that would not involve new dams and reservoirs - are discussed in our May 13th post (see below).

But what about the Klamath River Basin ? How is Climate Change likely to impact the amount of water available for fisheries, irrigation, domestic and recreational uses in our river basin?

To date there has been no comprehensive assessment of how Climate Change is likely to impact Klamath River Basin water supplies and streamflow. Climate Change is mentioned in the proposed (and increasingly controversial) Klamath Water Deal. Along with the “drought plan”, the proposal released by the Klamath Settlement Group defers assessing the impact of Climate Change on its proposed Klamath water allocations until some unknown future time.

While there has been no comprehensive assessment, it has now come to light that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) – which has taken a point position in promoting the proposed Water Deal – commissioned a climate change study in the Klamath and has had the results in its possession for at least a year. KlamBlog learned about that study from a FWS employee and tracked down its author. To make a long story shorter, a peer-reviewed article reporting the study and its results will be published this spring. Here’s the citation:

Van Kirk, R.W. and S.L. Naman. In press. Relative effects of water use and climate on base-flow trends in the lower Klamath Basin. Journal of the American Water Resources Association.

And here is that article’s abstract:

Since the 1940s, snow water equivalent (SWE) has decreased throughout the Pacific Northwest, while water use has increased. Climate has been proposed as the primary cause of base- flow decline in the Scott River, an important coho salmon rearing tributary in the Klamath Basin. We took a comparative-basin approach to estimating the relative contributions of climatic and non-climatic factors to this decline. We used permutation tests to compare discharge in 5 streams and 16 snow courses between “historic” (1942-1976) and “modern” (1977-2005) time periods, defined by cool and warm phases, respectively, of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. April 1 SWE decreased significantly at most snow courses lower than 1800 m in elevation and increased slightly at higher elevations. Correspondingly, base flow decreased significantly in the two streams with the lowest latitude-adjusted elevation and increased slightly in two higher-elevation streams. Base-flow decline in the Scott River, the only study stream heavily utilized for irrigation, was larger than that in all other streams and larger than predicted by elevation. Based on comparison with a neighboring stream draining wilderness, we estimate that 39% of the observed 10 Mm3 decline in July 1-October 22 discharge in the Scott River is explained by regional-scale climatic factors. The remainder of the decline is attributable to local factors, which include an increase in irrigation withdrawal from 48 to 103 Mm3/yr since the 1950s.

Translating into everyday English, the study found that Climate Change is already impacting Lower Klamath Basin streamflow. As in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere in the West, it is likely that Climate Change will result in more and larger floods and diminished base flow in the Lower Basin .<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[1]

The Van Kirk-Naman study does not cover the Upper Basin where the proposed Water Deal would lock in water allocations via federal legislation. But deferring an Upper Basin Climate Change Assessment that will likely find that the total amount of water which can be allocated to river flows and irrigation will shrink significantly should raise some eyebrows. The proposed Water Deal would also defer until some future time the “drought plan” which will tell us how the flows needed to prevent future fish kills will be obtained when there is not enough water to meet all water needs.

Critics of the proposed Water Deal believe the “drought plan” and “Climate Change Assessment” for the Upper Basin are not being produced now because they would make it clear that preventing fish kills during droughts if the proposed Deal is adopted would necessitate spending millions of taxpayer dollars to pay irrigators to leave water in the River. The proposed Water Deal would provide one group of irrigators – those who receive subsidized irrigation water from the federal Klamath Project - with a fixed water allocation guaranteed by federal legislation even during severe droughts. Taxpayer funds would be used during droughts to purchase water from these and other irrigators in order to prevent fish kills. This proposal has been criticized as both unsustainable (because of the high cost to taxpayers) and bad policy (because it would undermine the Public Trust Doctrine).

Returning to the Lower Basin , one would think that the Van Kirk-Naman Study would have led to increased focus on the Scott River where scientists estimate that 61% of the decrease in streamflow since 1977 is the result of “local factors” including a doubling of “irrigation withdrawal” since the 1950s<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[2]<!--[endif]-->. But there is no sign that those fishing, tribal and environmental groups which claim to be the defenders of Klamath Salmon will take action to stop the dewatering of the Scott River . And while there has been a complaint to the federal government that Scott River irrigators and the California Department of Fish & Game are “taking” Coho in the Scott and altering Critical Coho Habitat, that complaint was filed by an individual – not by any of the Klamath Salmon’s self-proclaimed “defenders”.

The lack of action to help Klamath Salmon in the Scott River is even more remarkable given the fact that an independent review of Coho and other fish issues in the Klamath River Basin by one of the nation’s leading scientific organization back in 2004<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]--> pointed to the “tributaries” (and specifically to the Scott River) as the key to recovery of Coho and other salmon. Here are relevant quotes from that report:

“Coho salmon, sping-run Chinook salmon, and summer steelhead depend heavily on the tributaries to complete their life cycles and sustain their populations. Thus, restoring large, self-sustaining runs of anadromous fishes in the basin requires restoration of tributaries to conditions that favor spawning and rearing of anadromous fishes. (emphasis added)

Despite widespread decline in suitability of habitat, the Scott River retains high potential for becoming once again a major producer of anadromous fishes, especially coho salmon.

To date, however, the (stakeholder) groups (active on the Scott) have not attempted to resolve the most important but intractable issue: increasing the amount of cold water entering the tributaries and the main stem.

Why have the self-proclaimed defenders of Klamath Salmon not taken action to end the dewatering of the Scott River ? And why has the Klamath Settlement Group not adopted the recommendations of a second National Research Council (NRC) Klamath Report which called for a “Basin-wide” flow study to address the very “tributaries” which the first NRC report said were “key” to the recovery of Klamath Salmon? These are questions which members of those tribes, fishing and environmental organizations which claim to be the champions of Klamath Salmon might want to ask their leaders. A list of the fishing and environmental groups active on the Klamath can be found within the May 5th and May 7th KlamBlog posts; contact information for the tribes, fishing and environmental organizations can be found on-line.

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->
<!--[endif]--> <!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[1]<!--[endif]--> The Lower Klamath Basin is that portion of the basin which is within the Klamath Mountain Province . Generally this is the portion of the Basin to the west of Interstate 5 including the Trinity and Scott Rivers. The Shasta River is on the border – part of it is in the Klamath Province and part is in the Cascade Province .

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[2]<!--[endif]--> The increase in irrigation in the Scott River Basin since the 1950s is estimated to be 55 Mm3/yr. This translates into an increase in irrigtion of 44,589 acre feet of water. An acre foot is the amount of water necessary to cover an acre of land with water a foot deep.

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