Summer 2002

The Big Dry

Cows plus drought equals misery for rivers in the West

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

1. Bear River -- Utah, Wyoming, Idaho

2. Salmon River -- Idaho

3. Gila River -- New Mexico, Arizona

4. John Day River -- Oregon

5. Owyhee River -- Oregon, Nevada, Idaho

6. Sweetwater River -- Wyoming

7. Big Hole River -- Montana

8. Little Humboldt River -- Nevada

9. Yampa River -- Colorado

10. Kern River -- California

Buyout or Bailout?

A Killing in the Klamath

2002 Cascadia Times

A 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 year’s run was expected to be even better – the fifth-largest in the Klamath’s 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 Reclamation’s 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 Bureau’s 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 at fault.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s 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.