Alana Madden

(CN) — The Yurok and Karuk tribes have blown the whistle on ranchers in Northern California who are defying state orders to curtail water usage by diverting flow from the Shasta River, imperiling already endangered salmon of the Klamath tributaries. The tribes say the diversion led to a 37% decrease in Shasta River flows, from 58 cubic feet per second to 36 in two hours on Aug. 17.

The Shasta River Water Association's diversion came days after a fire-induced mudslide killed tens of thousands of fish in a 60-mile reach of the Klamath River.

“The Shasta River Water Association is illegally dewatering one of the most important salmon nurseries in California,” said Karuk Chairman Russell Attebery in a statement Tuesday. “After last week’s fish kill, every juvenile salmon in the Klamath basin must be protected to ensure future runs. We are horrified, we are angry, and we expect accountability.”

Located outside of Yreka, California, the Shasta River Water Association delivers irrigation to several small ranches and farms between the towns of Grenada and Montague. However, since August 2021, residents of Siskiyou County’s Shasta and Scott River valleys have been subject to a water reduction order from California’s State Water Resource Control Board in response to Governor Gavin Newsom’s drought emergency declaration that year.

“The order is an attempt to maintain bare minimum flows in two of the Klamath’s most productive tributaries for Chinook salmon,” Karuk senior fisheries biologist Toz Soto said in the tribes' statement. “These flows reflect the best available science and are the minimum amount of water the fish need to survive in drought years.”

The Scott and Shasta rivers have long been home for salmon to spawn and lay eggs before returning to the ocean. “There’s cold flow year-round that is perfect for salmon,” Karuk natural resources consultant Craig Tucker. “Unfortunately, all this great water is diverted onto fields to grow pasture for cows.”

On Aug. 17, the Shasta River Water Association sent a letter to the Division of Water Rights Deputy Director Erik Ekdahl, informing the agency of plans to defy the curtailment order through exceptions listed by the order.

“The Shasta River Water Association has chosen to follow the suggested curtailment of 15% on the Shasta River,” the association said in its letter. “We will start pumping to supply water to livestock as the weather is over 90 degrees per the suggestion. We will also follow the suggestion to fill ponds for fire suppression and attempt to water the tree base to reduce fire hazards to the community and our families.”

The association closed its letter by saying it "looks forward to working with the numerous agencies in effort to protect the health of the river. At this time, we are choosing to protect the health of livestock, wildlife and families.”

The following day, the State Water Resources Control Board issued a cease-and-desist order, saying the association's water rights are curtailed under the drought emergency regulation. The association has 20 days to request a hearing or the order becomes final and could subject the organization to fines of up to $10,000 a day.

The Yurok and Karuk tribes are evaluating their options for holding the diverters accountable as well.

“We think regulatory agencies should take immediate action and curtail this water use,” said Tucker, adding the tribes’ culture and livelihood depend on the salmon. “These guys are stealing water from the rest of California. They’re killing fish that are protected to the benefit of California fishermen and for tribes.”

Tucker also sees the situation as a test of whether the state can keep water in rivers as the climate continues to dry. “I think if these guys get away with it here, next thing you know, farmers and ranchers are just going to ignore state agencies and federal agencies when they try to regulate,” said Tucker.

And that’s what nearly happened in southern Oregon on Monday. As reported by Capital Press, the Klamath Irrigation District announced plans to defy the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s orders to halt water deliveries to farmers in the region. Fortunately, the irrigation district has since closed a water canal after federal officials threatened to withhold $20 million in drought assistance.

Whether the Shasta River Water Association will also stand down and comply remains to be seen. The Associated Press reported diversions were ongoing as of Tuesday.

“We demand and deserve an equitable and fair approach to sharing water,” said Yurok Vice Chairman Frankie Myers in a statement. “For too long ranchers have done what they please with no concern for those of us living downstream. It is time we manage the Klamath Basin together as a whole.”

Myers added: “The State Water Board needs to act immediately to hold these illegal diverters accountable. We know the drought is tough on the agricultural community, but once these fish are gone, they are gone forever.”