'We're watching an extinction ...'; coalition of river advocates seeks protective listing for North Coast rivers, streams

In the midst of a historic statewide drought, a coalition of environmental, fishing and tribal groups is attempting to convince California's water board to protect a group of North Coast waterways facing dangerously low flows.

California Coastkeeper Alliance Executive Director Sara Aminzadeh said the "top five" list of rivers and streams -- the upper main Eel River, Shasta River, Russian River tributaries, Scott River and the Mattole River -- are being critically impaired by water-well pumping, diversions from water rights holders and low rainfall.

"We need to take action now," she said. "Some of these rivers are completely dry. These are clearly and incontrovertibly impaired."

Should the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board decline to list the five waterways during hearings in Santa Rosa on Tuesday and Redding on Wednesday, Aminzadeh said the organizations still have another chance.

"Our hope is, even if we aren't getting the North Coast board to list them, the state water board will intervene when the list comes before them," she said.

In order for the five waterways to be protected, they must meet the requirements under a section of the federal Clean Water Act of 2012 and go through a series of review processes for different government agencies.

David Leland, assistant executive director of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said reduced flows do not fall under the act.

"The Clean Water Act Section 303(d) list provides the framework within which surface waters are evaluated for impairment by pollutants, and does not provide guidance for the evaluation of water quality impairments related to reduced flow through the integrated report process," Leland wrote in an email to the Times-Standard.

Aminzadeh said that the organizations still plan to advocate for the listings during next week's public hearings. She said she understands that the act usually "addresses pollutants," but several states -- including California -- have listed waterways for flow impairments in past integrated reports.

"We're looking at formal acknowledgment of flow issues," Aminzadeh said.

With the state currently considering several water bonds and giving out millions of dollars in drought relief funds, Aminzadeh said the listings "could make these creeks and rivers eligible for restoration funding."

Leland said the board is currently working with the State Water Resources Control Board "to develop a statewide, scientifically defensible methodology for evaluating flow impairment" for the North Coast's next report in 2018, but Karuk Tribe Klamath Coordinator Craig Tucker said that salmon populations may not survive the wait.

Tucker said a combination of drought conditions and too much pumping from the Scott and Shasta rivers are having devastating effects on culturally significant coho salmon populations.

"If we don't do something to accommodate the Southern Oregon and Northern California coho salmon, 2018 could be too late," he said. "We're watching an extinction happen."

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504 or whouston@times-standard.com. Follow him on Twitter.com/Will_S_Houston.