Springs from the volcanic geology of Mount Shasta plus numerous tributary streams fed by rainfall and snowmelt provide a consistent year-round flow of cold water to the Upper Sacramento River. Surface flow in the river has been monitored by USGS at a location near Lake Shasta since 1945. Average daily flow is approximately 1,000 cfs, with a peak daily flow of 70,000 cfs (1974) and extreme low of 117 cfs (1977). Located in the upper watershed near the city of Mount Shasta, the 26,100-acre-foot Box Canyon Dam/Siskiyou Reservoir is operated by Siskiyou County for hydropower generation and recreation. Local communities capture spring water for domestic supply. There are no defined groundwater basins in this watershed; however, individual domestic wells are located throughout the region, and larger wells supply water to bottling plants in Mount Shasta and Dunsmuir.
Water quality in the Upper Sacramento River and its tributaries is very good overall and supports a variety of diverse and abundant coldwater aquatic species. In July 1991, a major environmental disaster occurred when a railroad tank car loaded with herbicide derailed on Cantara
Loop upstream of Dunsmuir. The released herbicide destroyed all aquatic life in the river from Cantara to Lake Shasta. Subsequent years saw many studies and remediation projects on the river, including a 5-year water quality investigation by the Central Valley RWQCB. Findings of this study characterize existing water quality conditions and are summarized as follows:
The steady supply and volume of cold, clean water in the Upper Sacramento River supports a high quality wild trout fishery. Anadromous salmon and steelhead runs that historically were abundant in the watershed ended with the 1943 completion of Shasta Dam; ongoing studies, however, are looking at the feasibility of restoring those runs. The watershed provides important habitat for a number of special-status plant and animal species, including rough sculpin, Shasta salamander, and northern spotted owl. Following the 1991 Cantara spill, a major effort was undertaken to restore fish and wildlife populations that were dependent on the Upper Sacramento River. That effort has been largely successful, and the river ecology has returned to pre-spill conditions. Today there are 75 mammal species living on the Upper Sacramento River, including 17 species of bat. Visitors to the area are likely to observe wildlife such as river otter, bald eagle, osprey, and great blue heron.
The Upper Sacramento River Watershed contains more than 250,000 acres of forested lands. This acreage includes major commercial stands of pine, fir, and cedar. Noncommercial stands of chaparral and hardwoods (black oak and live oak) are common, particularly in the lower elevations. Climate conditions and the generally steep terrain severely limit irrigation agriculture in this watershed. The dominant vegetative community is mixed conifer, covering approximately 46% of the watershed area. Mixed hardwood is next most prevalent, covering about 12%. Pacific yew, Indian rhubarb, and white alder are only a few of the native plants to be seen in the riparian area adjacent to the river.
Recreation and tourism are two of the primary drivers of the local economy. While timber production is still prominent, many businesses and communities in the watershed have shifted their economic base away from that of logging and forest products industries to take advantage of the region’s abundant recreational and scenic qualities. Overall population is sparse (approximately 11,000) and mostly resides in the two Siskiyou County communities of Mount Shasta and Dunsmuir. Interstate 5 and the Union Pacific Railway are the main north-south transportation corridors. Attesting to the high-quality source waters, two waterbottling plants operate in the watershed.
The River Exchange, a local watershed stewardship organization, together with a stakeholder-based steering committee, completed the Watershed Assessment and Management Strategy for the Upper Sacramento River in June 2010. Based on findings of the watershed assessment and other stakeholder input, the principal management issues for this watershed area are:
The Upper Sacramento River (together with the McCloud River and Lower Pit River Watersheds) was recently approved as a “region” under the IRWM program. An RWMG has been formed that includes The River Exchange; Cal Trout; local, state, and federal agencies; private timber companies; and Native American representatives. The group will attempt to secure an IRWM planning grant and, eventually, implementation funding for projects that address the management issues identified above.
The River Exchange is a nonprofit organization established following the 1991 Cantara spill for the purpose of restoring the attributes of the Upper Sacramento River Watershed and establishing a public center for information on the status of river conditions. With assistance from a steering committee of diverse stakeholders, The River Exchange has taken the lead in developing an Upper Sacramento River Watershed Assessment and Management Strategy. The River Exchange, together with the Mount Shasta area office of Cal Trout, recently applied for designation as a region under the IRWM (a region that includes the Upper Sacramento, McCloud, and Lower Pit River Watershed areas). This IRWM region was approved, and work is underway to develop a regional water management plan.
A number of major stakeholders in this watershed area have been actively involved in post–Cantara spill recovery work, and in the future planning and management of the watershed. These include DFG, CAL FIRE, Shasta-Trinity National Forest, private timberland owners (principally Roseburg Forest Products and Sierra Pacific Industries), Siskiyou County, Cal Trout, and the Union Pacific Railroad Corporation.