Biologist challenges Klamath models
Researchers don wet suits to measure
Capital Press Staff Writer
YREKA - The National Research Council
scientific committee studying data
underpinning government-dictated flows for the
Klamath River could take the role of
myth-busters - if they act on expert testimony
given here last week.
In almost one-two order, a fisheries biologist
and a consulting engineer challenged basic
assumptions in the Hardy Phase II flow study
finally delivered to the U.S. Department of
Interior two months ago. It's unclear how
challenges to basic assumptions might
influence future management of water shared by
irrigators, fish and recreational water users.
Mike Belchik, senior biologist for the
downriver Yurok Tribe and leader of a massive
sampling of summer temperatures below the dam
that blocks salmon migration, said the only
significant downstream cold-water refuges for
young fish are where tributary streams enter
the main Klamath. Tributary flow, he said, is
strong enough to preserve those pockets of
Belchik's team put on wet suits and swam the
60 miles below Iron Gate Dam, carrying
sensitive temperature probes with them.
"Do you think greater flows will wipe out
refugia?" a committee member asked.
"We think not," Belchik said.
Mike Deas, a veteran watershed consulting
engineer, told the committee that water
quality - from the nutrient-rich Upper Klamath
Lake - is a far greater danger to fish
survival than elevated summer stream
"What that means is a lot of algae" below the
lake, Deas said, in concentrations that make
reaches of the river near Keno, Ore., "dead
zones" with no oxygen for fish.
The NRC committee is charged by Interior with
giving peer review to both the Hardy report
and a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study
reconstructing natural flows that existed
before the 1905 project shifting over 200,000
acres from lakes and wetlands to croplands and
Will Graf, the University of South Carolina
geography professor who heads the 13-member
panel, said one more physical committee
meeting - to get facts on how Reclamation
hydrologists built their natural flow model -
will be held in Klamath Falls, Ore., in
January. Graf hopes the draft report will be
out by early summer 2007.
Utah State University hydrologist Thomas
Hardy, who has been modeling flows needed for
salmon, told the review committee he limited
summertime downstream discharge. The theory is
that lesser flows avoid breaking up downstream
patches of cold water sought by juvenile
salmon making their way to the ocean.
Klamath coho salmon are under Endangered
Species Act protection. The native run of
Klamath chinook dropped so low that commercial
ocean fishing was all but banned this year off
700 miles of California and Oregon coastline.
Water quality is "an under appreciated"
Klamath problem, Deas said. He pointed out
that total output of the 10 million acre
watershed shared by California and Oregon
varies widely from year to year. In 2000,
about 12 million acre feet flowed into the
Pacific Ocean, but in droughty 2001, discharge
dropped to 6.2 MAF.
Despite that wide fluctuation in runoff from
winter precipitation, the system has low
runoff every summer, dropping flows and making
them warmer as sun-heated water from
hydroelectric dam reservoirs makes its way
downstream. Present summer flows are dictated
by a court order aimed at aiding coho. Coho
juveniles remain in the river for one year
before heading to sea. Prolonged water
temperatures over 68 degrees F are fatal.
Hardy said he didn't put water quality in his
study because both California and Oregon are
setting total maximum daily loads of
pollutants for the Klamath and its major
Water temperature, he said, appears a limiting
factor to the various life stages of migrating
fish. He built changes in base flow of the
river around when fish are in various reaches
of the river.
The issue over summer cold-water refuges is
more complex. Over the years some fish
biologists have argued that greater summer
flows help move fish downstream faster -
through those long stretches of warm water.
Others point out that disease and pests attack
fish, sometimes resulting in massive kills
such as the much-publicized lower river
die-off in late August 2002. Flows were so low
at the time that observers said migrating
chinook were trapped about 18 miles from the
The U.S. Geologic Survey, Interior's science
think tank, launched a detailed study of
available fish habitat. Under contract to
California Department of Fish and Game, the
scientists are looking in detail at the 47
miles immediately downstream from Iron Gate
Dam. Tim Hardin, the USGS team leader, told
the committee his work will be translated into
computer models that help scientists
understand traits of habitat favored by
Tam Moore is based in Medford, Ore. His e-mail
address is email@example.com.