Klamath River Salmon and Steelhead Recovery – The Future

After dam removal, the plan for recovering Klamath River salmon and steelhead is relatively straightforward.

Oregon is going to focus on watching to see how steelhead repopulate the upper watershed and on having a more active role in developing spring-run Chinook salmon populations.  Without an existing spring-run stock, Oregon will try establishing one by out-planting stock from California’s Trinity River Hatchery.

California will focus on recovery of existing lower river spring-run Chinook and fall-run Chinook, Coho, and steelhead stocks.  The new Fall Creek Hatchery will sustain the fall-run Chinook, Coho, and steelhead stocks formerly produced at the now-closed Iron Gate Hatchery.  Lower and middle river wild spring–run and fall-run Chinook, Coho, and mainstem and tributary steelhead stocks should expand with improved water quality and access to new habitat.  Historical tributaries offer great potential as does the spring-fed reach of the mainstem near the Oregon border.

In the decades ahead, as the populations and habitat recover, state, federal, tribal, and stakeholder groups will work together toward Klamath salmon and steelhead recovery.

There will be a need to coordinate management of the three H’s:  hatcheries, harvest, and habitat.  Existing hatchery programs should be converted to a single conservation hatchery program focused on salmon and steelhead recovery.  Such a program will need a new hatchery to support the recovery of Klamath spring-run Chinook, as in the San Joaquin River Restoration Program.  The Pacific Fishery Management Council and the two states will have to protect the recovering populations with strict harvest regulations.  Considerable funding will be needed to restore fire-damaged and drought-damaged watersheds, former reservoir footprints, mainstem and tributary fish passage, and spawning and rearing habitat.

Water supply management will remain contested and challenging.  Adequate funding, cooperative efforts, and adaptive management will bring success.

Klamath River Update – March 2024

On March 2, CDFW reported the mortality of recently released (Feb. 28) salmon fry from the new Fall Creek Salmon Hatchery located on a Klamath River tributary upstream of the site of the recently removed Iron Gate Dam. The Iron Gate Hatchery located at the foot of the dam site was removed with the dam and replaced by the Fall Creek Hatchery. Mortality of the salmon fry was attributed to gas bubble disease caused by the fry passing through the Iron Gate Dam release tunnel.

Iron Gate Reservoir and the three upstream reservoirs were emptied beginning on January 11 prior to dam removal. As the reservoirs were drained, the gage below Copco Dam picked up a large increase in turbidity with an associated complete loss of dissolved oxygen (Figure 1). Oxygen returned to the water after several days despite continued high turbidity. This indicated the initial dissolved oxygen loss was likely related to the flush of organic sediment from the bottom of the reservoirs as the draining neared completion. After the flows stabilized (Figure 2) and water level in the river had dropped six feet by the end of January, turbidity dropped and stabilized near 3000 mg/l suspended sediment, and normal high dissolved oxygen returned. Turbidity was measured using three parameters (Figure 3).

The hatchery salmon fry released on February 28 were subjected to a Klamath River with elevated turbidity (suspended sediment concentrations above 2000 mg/l). Such concentrations for extended exposure (days) are highly detrimental to salmon fry.1 The combination of high suspended sediment and gas bubble disease likely has contributed to poor juvenile salmon production this year in the lower Klamath River.

The removal of the Klamath River dams will have substantial long-term benefits for salmonids. As the dam removal process proceeds, it is important to mitigate the short-term impacts of high turbidity levels to the degree possible. Continuing high turbidity events (see March levels in Figure 3) do not bode well for hatchery or wild salmon in the Klamath this year. With nearly 4 million juvenile Chinook salmon yet to be released from the Fall Creek Hatchery this year, it would be wise to either wait for next fall to release them or truck the smolts to the Klamath estuary.

Figure 1. Water level, suspended sediment, and dissolved oxygen in the Klamath River above Iron Gate Reservoir and mouth of Fall Creek, January 16 to March 10, 2024.

Figure 2. Streamflow below the Iron Gate Dam site January 1 to March 10, 2024. Source: USGS.

Figure 3. Suspended sediment and turbidity upstream of Iron Gate Reservoir above the mouth of Fall Creek near Copco, January 16 to March 10, 2024.

  1. Newcombe, C.P., and J.O.T. Jensen. 1996. Channel suspended sediment and fisheries: a synthesis for quantitative assessment of risk and impact. North American Journal of Fisheries Management. 16:693-727.

2024 Salmon Season in Doubt

On March 1, 2024, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) held its CDFW Annual Salmon Information Meeting via a webinar. The prognosis for a 2024 salmon season does not look good.

The closure of all California salmon fishing in 2023 brought an uptick in salmon escapement to 133,000 in the Sacramento River, which is somewhat positive. The forecast for this year’s fishable stock in the ocean (made up of broodyears 2021-2023), however, is not much better than last year’s, with the lingering effects of the 2020-2022 drought. If a normal fishery had been held last year or were to be held this year, the salmon stocks would no doubt fall into an “over-fished” status.

Notable points of interest:

  • Without fishing in 2023, there was an uptick in the relative percentage of four-year-old spawners, especially in the Klamath system. This was likely related to the fishery closure and strong production from broodyear 2019.
  • There seemed to be significant concern that a higher fishable stock level was important for the good of the endangered southern Orca population that feeds primarily on Chinook salmon.
  • The fisheries agencies appear more comfortable with a fishable stock well over 180,000 than with the forecasted 213,000 for 2024. Note that the 2024 forecast was based on jacks from broodyear 2021 that returned in 2023 that were produced in the heart of drought years 2021 and 2022. Jack numbers are representative of age three adult return numbers the following year (2024).
  • Not a word of concern was expressed for protecting wild, natural-born returning salmon.
  • There was no mention of prescribing a mark-selective fishery despite the recent adoption of such a measure for Columbia River Chinook salmon and its universal use in Coho salmon and steelhead fisheries.

Nothing was said about the possibility of at least experimenting with mark-selective fishing, wherein harvest is allowed on fin-clipped hatchery salmon, a practice prescribed with increasing frequency in Pacific Northwest salmon fisheries. I believe the fishable stock (age 2-4) of marked salmon in the ocean in 2024 is about 300,000.1 A mark-selective fishery could harvest 200,000 of these fish without harming spawning stocks of wild or hatchery fish.2

Sport and commercial fishermen should advocate for a mark-selective fishery in 2024 rather than a second consecutive year of a closed fishery. The Pacific Fishery Management Council is setting harvest control rules for California fishing in early March.3

Catch-and-Release and Mark-Selective Fisheries Providing Salmon for the Future

Current proposals by various governmental officials and agencies are not adequate to protect public trust fisheries. The Central Valley fall-run salmon escapement fell below 100,000 in 2022, levels not seen since the 2008 and 2009 drought (Figure 1). Spawning numbers in the upper mainstem Sacramento River near Redding were below 5000 in 2022, record low levels also not seen since 2016 and 2017 (Figure 2). Fall-run salmon escapement numbers for the entire Sacramento River showed a similar pattern (Figure 3). Salmon fisheries were closed in 2009 and 2023 to ensure against over-fishing.

The upper mainstem fall-run salmon population was historically the backbone of Central Valley salmon escapement and fisheries. That population and its natural-born component has crashed and is need of immediate attention. Otherwise, hatcheries will be shut down, no fisheries will be allowed to protect wild fish, and salmon will go the way of the condor. Aggressive action is needed to save the salmon and salmon fisheries.

In a December 2023 post, I suggested California adopt mark-selective salmon fisheries – harvest of only hatchery fish and catch-and-release of unmarked wild and hatchery fish (only about 25% of hatchery smolts are marked). This would protect wild salmon and allow harvest of hatchery salmon. It is a strategy that is now commonplace in the Pacific Northwest. 1

Informal feedback on the suggestion has been mostly negative.  Commercial fishermen really don’t like the idea, because they would prefer a quota.  Otherwise, they would have high bycatch mortality (20+%) of wild or unmarked fish.  They already kill too many undersized fish that they have to release.  Sport fishermen have similar concerns, although they admit they use gear and techniques that have lower release mortality.  Fisheries agencies simply don’t like the added management problems.  In the end, all these entities would rather close the fishery down next year and let the stocks rebuild.  However, the rebuilding will take years.  Many hatchery salmon will go to waste.

There is a solution that would allow salmon fisheries without driving wild salmon populations to extinction.  All hatchery smolts should be marked to differentiate them from wild (natural-born) salmon. The practice would allow mark-selective fisheries.  All hatchery smolts should also be transported to the Bay or coast for release.  This would ensure high hatchery smolt survival and relieve the competition with wild fish in rearing and migrating reaches of the rivers and Bay-Delta estuary.  It would also likely reduce predation on wild juvenile salmon in the rivers and Bay-Delta estuary, because hatchery smolts in rivers and the estuary attract predators.

To participate in the fishery, commercial and sport fishermen would have to modify gear and methods to reduce bycatch mortality.  Agencies would have to provide more education/information, rules, and more monitoring and assessment.  Through information gathering and experience, it may be possible to focus fishery effort toward areas and times more frequented by hatchery salmon and where bycatch mortality is minimal.  With these additions, the fisheries agencies could focus more on wild salmon recovery, while ensuring the hatchery program and its fisheries are efficient and effective.

Figure 1. Total escapement of four salmon runs in the Central Valley 1975-2022.

Figure 2. Upper Sacramento River Fall-Run Salmon escapement from 1952-2022. Coleman is hatchery counts. Others are mainstem and upper Sacramento River tributary spawning surveys.

Figure 3. Sacramento River Fall-Run Salmon escapement from 1975-2022.

Scott-Shasta River Salmon Update – February 2024

The upper Scott River near Callahan in early spring of drought year 2013.

At the end of November 2023, the Beaver Moon, the last full moon before December, appeared. The Beaver Moon was so named because it was the last chance for trappers to catch beaver with full coats before winter set in. The Beaver Moon also occurs at the peak of the Coho and Chinook salmon runs in the Scott River Valley, once named Beaver Valley. The beaver were once very abundant before being “removed” by ranchers and trappers. Today, beaver are slowly coming back. The beaver help maintain the local groundwater tables, streamflow, water temperatures, riparian vegetation, and create good coho salmon rearing habitat.1

The State Water Resources Control Board took up the Scott and Shasta Rivers water issues again in fall 2023,2 following its adoption of emergency drought regulations in 2022 and a 2023 petition from the Karuk Tribe and environmental organizations3 to protect salmon and steelhead in the Scott river in all water years.

The emergency regulations for 2022 called for summer minimum flows of 30-50 cfs in the Scott River and 50 cfs in the Shasta River. Such minimums were not achieved on the Scott River (Figure 1), but for the most part were achieved on the Shasta River (Figure 2). Such flows were necessary for two key flow functions: (1) maintaining connectivity between spawning and rearing areas in the valleys and the Klamath River, and (2) sustaining over-summering rearing habitat of salmon and steelhead throughout the two rivers and their tributaries.

Without adequate summer flows, salmon fry become trapped in upstream spawning areas without access to productive spring-fed Valley rearing habitat. Maintaining flow in Valley spring-fed habitats provides connectivity and rearing refuges. Late summer and fall minimum flows are necessary to provide access to the valleys from the Klamath River canyon for salmon and steelhead adult spawners.

The State Board should have kept some emergency order elements in place after the orders ended in July 2023, even though 2023 was a wet year. In 2023, both rivers and their salmon were stressed again by low flows (Figures 3 and 4).

Because base flows from mountain and valley springs are just over 100 cfs in both streams, stressful conditions are brought on by the cumulative effects of small water diversions and groundwater pumping. Surface water diversions and groundwater extraction for agricultural and domestic water use draw from this supply, with peak use in the summer-fall irrigation season. On the Shasta River, the irrigation season ends at the beginning of October, allowing flows from springs to fill the river channel for returning salmon. On the Scott River, the irrigation season extends through November to water pastures and to get in the last crop of hay.

In the Shasta River, flows in October are sufficient for Chinook spawners passage to spawning areas around Big Springs in Shasta Valley. But in the Scott Valley, Chinook often do not have adequate passage flows to ascend from the Klamath Canyon up to Scott Valley until the first late-fall rains. In most years, early December rains accommodate the Coho run in the Scott River. Young salmon from the prior year’s spawning also need the fall flows to emigrate from the Valley to the Klamath River and ocean.

2023 Karuk et. al. Petition for Scott River4

On May 22, 2023, the Karuk Tribe, Environmental Law Foundation, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, and Institute for Fisheries Research petitioned the State Water Board to initiate a rulemaking to establish permanent (not just emergency) instream flows on the Scott River.

As an initial response, the State Water Board re-adopted, on an emergency basis, the emergency minimum instream flows previously in effect in both the Scott River and Shasta River.

Comment: The State Board did not readopt the emergency regulations in wet year 2023 and the salmon suffered.

2024 Coastkeeper et al. Petition for Shasta River

On January 17, 2024, California Coastkeeper Alliance, Friends of the Shasta River, Mt. Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center, Water Climate Trust, Shasta Waterkeeper, Save California Salmon, and Environmental Protection Information Center petitioned the State Water Board to initiate a rulemaking to establish permanent (not just emergency) instream flows on the Shasta River.


As an initial matter, the State Water Board should adopt as permanent the minimum instream flows it adopted on February 1, 2024 as emergency instream flows.5 This will put an immediate end to dry streambeds in the summer and fall as shown in Figures 3-5 below. This will admittedly also significantly reduce water available for human use and cause a conflict between groundwater and surface water users, as well as among water right holders.

In the longer term, there are some relatively straightforward additional measures that could help create solutions to the problems in Scott and Shasta Valleys and potentially reduce the water supply impacts. Whether these actions are equitable, reasonable, cost-effective, and/or politically doable is open to question and evaluation. The adoption of the flow requirements as shown must not be contingent on the implementation or effectiveness of such actions.

Possible additional measures include:

  1. Create additional instream or off-stream storage to capture winter water for summer release to meet demands and needs.
  2. Make concerted efforts to recharge groundwater storage with the often-plentiful winter-spring runoff.
  3. Deepen the river channel by removing accumulated fine and course sediments to enhance channel access to groundwater. Removing Young’s Dam in the middle Scott Valley would deepen channel upstream and alleviate the dam’s impediment to salmon and steelhead migration.
  4. Eliminate all surface water diversions from stream channels. There are many small water diversions from the Scott and Shasta rivers that divert streamflow and juvenile salmon. Surface diversions should be replaced by a regulated groundwater extraction program.

     Small water diversion on a Scott River tributary. All small and larger surface diversions should be eliminated. The present system was controlled by the state watermaster program that no longer covers the Scott River and its tributaries.

    Small water diversion on a Scott River tributary. All small and larger surface diversions should be eliminated. The present system was controlled by the state watermaster program that no longer covers the Scott River and its tributaries.

  5. Use unused well capacity to temporarily augment surface water flow in the streams in late summer to help with salmon migrations and to accommodate spawners. In Scott Valley, many hay producers cease pumping from wells at the beginning of August or September. A monitoring and evaluation program would be required to avoid long-term impacts to groundwater levels. The target flow in both the Scott River and Shasta River should be near 100 cfs by October 1 at the Fort Jones and Yreka gages, respectively.
  6. Enhance and restore water storage in mountain and valley meadows through watershed management, including introductions of beaver.
  7. Institute an aggressive water conservation program in the two watersheds.

Latest Actions

 The petitioners requested the following:

Drought emergency minimum flows are specified below:

 Scott River:

  Shasta River:

 The State unveiled the California Salmon Strategy for a Hotter, Drier Future:  Restoring Aquatic Ecosystems in the Age of Climate Change on January 31, 2024.  The Strategy describes state actions for the Scott and Shasta rivers, as follows:


  • Designate Salmon Strongholds: the Klamath River and its tributaries including the Salmon, Scott, and Shasta rivers.
  • In April 2023, CDFW awarded $20 million in Drought Emergency Salmon Protection Grants to 10 projects demonstrating support from and collaboration with Tribal Nations and landowner interests in the Shasta and Scott rivers and their watersheds. These include habitat improvement, removal of barriers to fish passage, and groundwater recharge projects that help ensure streamflow.
  • The State Water Board, acting upon a petition from the Karuk Tribe, began consideration of an emergency regulation in 2023 to set emergency minimum flows for the Scott and Shasta rivers while a longer, inclusive process evaluates long-term strategies for these salmon strongholds.
  • By early 2024, commence work to establish minimum instream flows in the Scott and Shasta Rivers, working with local partners on locally driven solutions and coordinating on options for incentivizing the reduction of diversions and groundwater pumping. (SWRCB, CDFW)
  • Currently, with state funding support, the Yurok Tribe, the Karuk Tribe, California Trout, Scott River Water Trust, and Farmers Ditch Company are developing a design-build project to restore habitat in the Scott River and improve water diversion infrastructure for on-farm water utilization and efficiency.

 For more on the Scott River issues see: https://calsport.org/fisheriesblog/?p=1608 .

Figure 1. Scott River streamflow in 2021 and 2022 at Fort Jones gage. Note the end of the irrigation season in November-December. Note also prescribed emergency flows were not met in 2022.

Figure 2. Shasta River summer 2021 and 2022 streamflow at the Yreka gage. Note the end of the irrigation season on October 1st. Note also prescribed emergency flows were met in 2022 with the exception of about a one-week period in August.

Figure 3. Scott River streamflow in summer-fall 2023 at Fort Jones gage. Note the July 2023 flow reduction when the emergency flow regulations ended. Note also the end of the irrigation season on December 1st.

Figure 4. Shasta River summer 2023 streamflow at the Yreka gage. Note the July 2023 flow reduction when the emergency flow regulations ended. Note also the end of the irrigation season on October 1st.

Figure 5. Scott River in Scott Valley in August 2013. The riverbed is perched above the water table that was low due to groundwater extraction for hay and pasture watering.

Figure 6. Lower Valley location of Scott River at the mouth of Shackleford Creek, a major salmon spawning tributary, on October 26, 2013.

Figure 7. Young’s Dam and fish ladder. Portions of the dewatered Scott Valley stream are located in the perched channel upstream of Young’s Dam. Under low late-summer streamflows, the ladder at Young’s Dam is not functional and blocks the Chinook migration. The channel upstream of the dam is wide and perched above the water table, so it is often too warm, with insufficient flow and cover, for rearing salmon. In contrast, the channel below the dam is deep and shaded with spring-fed juvenile salmon refugia.

  1. Beaver dams sometimes block salmon migrations.  In Alaska, biologists sometimes resort to blowing up dams with dynamite.  On the Yuba River near Brownsville, biologists in recent decades had to “dismantle” some dams to allow salmon access to tributary creek spawning habitat.
  2. https://www.times-standard.com/2023/08/22/minimum-flows-set-for-scott-river-in-state-water-board-meeting/
  3. https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/drought/scott_shasta_rivers/docs/2023/petition-minimum-flows.pdf
  4. https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/drought/scott_shasta_rivers/docs/2022/klamath-reg-2022.pdf
  5. State Water Board, Emergency Regulation Scott River & Shasta River Watershed, February 1, 2024:  https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/drought/scott_shasta_rivers/docs/2024/scott-shasta-reg-oal-approval-2024.pdf.