©2002 Cascadia Times
Killing in the Klamath
Last year, in the midst of drought, irrigators
in the Klamath River basin protested fiercely as
the federal Bureau of Reclamation diverted water
away from their fields to protect fish. This year,
with conditions even drier, the Bureau decided to
redirect the water toward the farmers. Now as many
as 30,000 salmon are dead.
At some point in the last year, the Bureau decided
fish would not get the amount of water federal biologists
say is needed. Fish returning to the river basin
in September to spawn paid dearly for this decision,
dying by the tens of thousands from lethal water
temperatures and disease.
By the end of September, the number of dead adult
fall Chinook salmon and steelhead approached 30,000,
out of a run that in 2001 numbered nearly 200,000.
This years run was expected to be even better
the fifth-largest in the Klamaths recorded
history. The die-off is certain to reduce future
salmon runs in the Klamath, causing potentially
severe economic stress to fishing communities along
the California and Oregon coast for years to come.
The dead also included at least 100 coho salmon,
a threatened species in the Klamath.
Smaller fish kills caused by high temperatures
in the Klamath system occurred throughout the 1990s.
But the kills usually occurred in the tributaries,
not in the main stem, according to the National
Marine Fisheries Service. In June and July 2000
up to 300,000 thousand juvenile Chinook salmon and
steelhead were killed by low flows.
This spring, the Forest Service and the California
Department of Fish and Game reported that more than
300 salmon were stranded on the shore or found dead.
We believe this is due to the reduced flows
being administered by the Bureau of Reclamation,
Rep. George Miller and Rep. Mike Thompson, Democrats
who represent parts of Northern California in Congress,
said in a statement.
The latest slaughter could easily have been prevented,
had the Bureau of Reclamation provided more flows
in the river, according to environmentalists.
They say the Bureau set the Klamath on course for
this disaster in February 2002, when it announced
a new 10-year plan for allocating water in the Klamath
Basin. The plan gave farmers got their full allotment
of water, while reducing late summer flows in the
Klamath by 25 percent from what they were in 2001.
On May 31, the National Marine Fisheries Service
on May predicted that salmon in the Klamath River
during September would encounter marginal
to lethal water quality conditions under Reclamations
proposed operation of the Project. NMFS said
water temperatures would be quite high
and stressful to fish. Further investigation
is needed, NMFS said.
Yet NMFS found that the plan did not violate the
Endangered Species Act, so long as the Bureau performed
a number of studies.
The Bureau of Reclamation began reducing flows
in to the Klamath River in July, after it realized
that the summer would be unusually dry. At the time,
it asked farmers to conserve water, but it did not
reduce their allocations. On August 29, the Bureau
asked irrigators again to conserve water, but still
did not reduce their share. Again, the Bureau reduced
flows into the Klamath River.
The terrible consequences of the Bureaus
decision started to become clear by September 12,
environmentalists say, when the Klamath heated to
nearly 80 degrees in the estuary, several degrees
above temperatures than can be fatal to salmon.
Then the salmon started dying. A virus infection,
causing fatal gill rot, spread like an epidemic.
On September 27, the Bureau announced it would
restore river flows to 2001 levels -- too late to
save the 50,000 already dead and the thousands more
fish that were expected to die.
The White House denied knowing what caused the
die-off, and dodged any responsibility for it. This
is an abnormal situation and we want to help these
fish while meeting our Endangered Species Act responsibilities
and delivering water to irrigated agriculture in
the Klamath Basin, said Interior Secretary
Gail Norton. Although scientists are still
struggling to understand why this problem has arisen,
we want to do what we can now to respond.
A coalition of state, tribal, fishing and environmental
groups, however, said the federal government was
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens
Associations filed suit challenging the Bureau of
Reclamation and its 10 year plan for managing irrigation
in the Klamath Basin. While the massive fish kill
did not trigger the lawsuit, it will likely be Exhibit
A in any trial.
The fishermen's lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice
and joined by the Institute for Fisheries Resources,
The Wilderness Society, WaterWatch of Oregon, Northcoast
Environmental Center, Oregon Natural Resources Council,
Defenders of Wildlife, Klamath Forest Alliance,
Headwaters, and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-California.