The Shasta River’s importance as a nursery for Klamath Basin salmon and steelhead derives from the year-round springs supplied by multiple glaciers atop adjacent 14,179-foot Mount Shasta. Seasonal creeks supplemented the spring sources with additional gravel-rich spawning habitat. The Shasta winds 40 miles through a unique high desert ecosystem, the Shasta Valley before it meets the Klamath River. The Shasta’s combination of spring and seasonal snowmelt sources created perfect spawning, rearing, and refuge habitat that sustained multiple species of salmonids.
The Shasta River is a shadow of its former self; gold discoveries and fertile volcanic soils drew settlers who wreaked havoc on the fish that depended on the Shasta’s nutrient-rich waters. Dwinnell Dam, constructed in 1928, diverts the majority of seasonal snowmelt and blocks access to significant upper watershed spawning habitat. The Shasta’s glacial spring sources were also dammed and diverted with a significant negative impact on the once ideal water quality. Court decrees over-allocate Shasta River water such that the river nearly stops flowing during the height of irrigation season.
Though the Shasta River’s Spring Salmon and Summer Steelhead runs are only a memory, Coho Salmon and Fall Steelhead maintain a foothold in the remaining refuge of glacial source springs. By luck of their post irrigation season timing spawning Fall Chinook Salmon fare better than Coho or Steelhead, though their numbers are also a fraction of historic returns.
The Shasta River maintains its potential for Klamath basin wild and salmon and steelhead recovery because of its drought-resistant year-round glacial spring sources. Fish passage through Dwinnell Dam would open access to numerous miles of gravel-rich spawning and rearing habitat in clean upper basin tributary streams. Stewardship focused restoration of water quality and quantity will unlock the Shasta River’s historic potential as one of the most productive Klamath tributaries.