Klamath Water Users Association
Oct 4, 2002
Project Under Attack: A Recap of the 2002 Klamath River Fish Die-Off
Two weeks ago, Klamath Basin farmers were winding down irrigation operations and preparing for the first full harvest in nearly two years. Little did they know that events occurring 200 miles downstream the Klamath River would again propel them into a controversial debate that has since captured the attention of the national media.
Huge Fish Run Identified Early
In the days before dead fish first appeared on the lower Klamath, anglers were abuzz over the surging fall-run Chinook salmon runs on the Klamath River and other Northern California rivers. Media reports suggested that unprecedented numbers of fish were returning to spawn in upstream areas. On the Klamath and Trinity Rivers, there were so many fish that state biologists were predicting that anglers would complete the season without triggering quota-induced closures. Earlier in the year, the California Fish and Game Commission set a quota on the sport take of Klamath-Trinity adult, fall-run salmon of 20,500 fish, the second-highest limit since quotas were introduced more than 20 years ago.
''The lower 20 miles of the Klamath River is stacked with salmon, the most I've ever seen," said guide Dave Mierkey, from Stockton, California. "It is routine to hook and release more than 30 fish during a morning session.''
Mierkey’s comment was made just days before thousands of dead salmon began to appear close to the Highway 101 bridge near the river’s mouth.
The Blame Game Begins
On September 22nd, the Eureka Times Standard reported that 4,000 chinook salmon had perished in the lower river over the previous few days. The fish appeared to have died from one or two diseases triggered by stress. While later reports suggested that the overcrowded conditions were a contributing factor to stressing the fish, the Times Standard and other papers initially emphasized that warm, poor-quality water was the culprit. That paper – which serves communities along the lower Klamath – also stated that “many believe the fish kill, and others in recent years, are the product of poor management of water” within the Klamath Project. The only biologist quoted in that article was Dave Hillemeier, of the Yurok Tribe.
“The tribal members are going to be hurting for years because of management decisions made this year,” said Hillemeier.
Other initial reports from media in the region relied heavily upon public statements made by long-time critics of the Klamath Project, including Yurok Tribe biologists, who directly accused Project operations and Basin irrigators as the cause for the die-off of migrating salmon. The Oregonian two days later featured a front-line headline that proclaimed “Dead fish tied to policy flaws”, followed by a full-color picture of rotting dead salmon floating in the lower river. That article, too, attempted to link the dead fish with “warm, polluted water that biologists trace in part to farming operations in the Klamath Basin”. Again, the only parties that actually pointed the finger at the Klamath Project were Yurok Tribe spokesmen, including Hillemeier, and Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association (PCFFA), another vocal critic of Klamath farmers.
“Last year in the middle of a drought we had more water coming down the river than we do now,” said Spain. “This is a very clear sign that the system in place now is not working.”
While fisheries experts with NMFS and the University of California advised that it was premature to pin the deaths entirely on the Klamath Project, The Oregonian nonetheless set the tone for other reports that began to flood the media. These initial reports formed the basis for much of the subsequent reporting done in the media, which mushroomed into a national debate in the following days.
Once the alarming article from The Oregonian reached the national newswires, the media attention reached a level not seen since Klamath Project water was cutoff to farmers and ranchers in 2001. The Los Angeles Times on September 25th again focused on critics’ claims that Project diversions were responsible for the thousands of dead salmon. While Hillemeier and Spain were quoted in the article, no state or federal agency biologist supported their allegations. In fact, the Times piece concluded that officials had suggested the larger problem was that too little water from throughout the 10-million acre watershed was being allowed to reach the sea.
The following weekend brought with it two pieces of journalism that had a huge impact on the general public’s perception of the crisis. On Saturday, September 28th, the New York Times broadcast the fish kill to the world, and The Oregonian carried an editorial that laid the blame for the dead salmon at the feet of the Bush Administration and Project irrigators.
“The Bush Administration and Congress thought it could resolve last year’s crisis in the Klamath Basin by challenging the science of salmon protection and simply ordering more water to irrigators,” said The Oregonian. “Here is the result: thousands of rotting salmon, including hundreds of threatened coho, stacking up in the lower river.”
The New York Times focused on arguments made by the tribes and PCFFA that also accused the Bush Administration of breaking the law and starving the river by favoring farmers over fish.
“Basically, the administration created a drought in the lower river,” said PCFFA’s Zeke Grader to The Times. “We were expecting a really good run of fish this year. And now we’ve got the federal government essentially killing fish to satisfy their irrigation interests.”
Both articles were damaging to Klamath Basin agricultural interests. The Oregonian, the state’s largest paper, presented a trial-without-jury editorial that found Project irrigators guilty of killing fish. The New York Times feature would send reporters from all over the country scurrying to the lower Klamath, looking for disgruntled fisherman and tribal representatives to verify the charges made in the Times article.
Government Experts Question Causes
Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento, best summed up the growing frenzy.
“When the New York Times thinks a story is newsworthy, the rest of the nation’s media will soon follow,” said McCracken.
As McCracken predicted, the New York Times feature catalyzed interest in the Klamath fish kill in media outlets across the country. ABC News, NBC Nightly News, and National Public Radio all provided coverage of the issue. The network news stations interviewed tribal representatives and biologists, with extensive footage of dead salmon lying on the stream bank in the background. While NBC took the time to meet with Klamath Basin farmers, the national television coverage will likely be remembered by most viewers for the images of dead fish that dominated the landscape.
At the same time the national media was showing interest in the fish crisis, California congressman Mike Thompson, joined by PCFFA, the Yurok Tribes and EarthJustice, filed legal papers in U.S. Federal District Court challenging the federal government’s ten-year plan for managing the Klamath Project. A press conference was also conducted by Thompson and his environmental supporters in Washington, D.C. Environmental advocates heaped piles of dead fish on the steps of the U.S. Department of the Interior building to bring attention to their cause.
Late last week, some papers – generally those in smaller markets –began to
question the assumption made by others that the Klamath Project was
somehow to blame for the crisis. Several stories printed in the Klamath
Falls Herald and News were careful to point out that the allegations made
against the farmers were largely being made by newspapers and the Yurok
Tribe. Reports by other experts who cautioned against preliminary finger
pointing were finding their way into other papers, as well. Jim Lecky, a
spokesman for NMFS, said that there were too many tributaries joining the
river in the 190-mile stretch between Iron Gate Dam and the river’s mouth
to lay the blame on Klamath Project operations.
“That reach of the river is far downstream,” he said. “They’re just one of several factors.”
Two other fisheries experts with the USFWS told the Herald and News that blaming the Klamath Project for the deaths was impossible given the information available at the time.
Bob McAllister, with the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), said lower flows through Iron Gate and fish deaths could be related, but since the deaths occurred near the mouth of the river, the linkage was hard to establish.
“We don’t know if it would have happened anyway,” McAllister told the Herald and News.
In a national press teleconference conducted Wednesday by USFWS Director Steve Williams in Washington, the federal government firmly laid out initial findings that federal fisheries experts had developed regarding the addressed the recent fish die-off (see page 5 for some of Williams responses).
“Given the limited data, at this point we consider it premature to draw conclusions,” said Williams.
“There are too many unanswered questions. We are gathering facts and aggressively seeking answers."
Williams confirmed earlier reports that suggested most of the salmon died of suffocation due to bacterial and protozoan infections, which resulted in significant damage to the fish's gills. These are commonly known as major disease problems in salmon hatcheries, where fish are crowded together. When fish are held in these conditions, disease transmission between individuals is greatly enhanced, leading to high rates of infection. He also indicated that another cause, such as a toxic chemical spill, was not likely responsible for this die-off.
Williams made other statements that cast serious doubt on allegations made by downstream interests that Klamath Project flow impacts were killing the fish.
"The water volume at the mouth of the Klamath River at the time of the fish kill ranged from approximately 2,200 to 2,400 cubic feet per second,” he said in a memo to the federal Klamath River Basin Working Group. “By comparison, in 3 of the past 11 years, average daily flows during September at the mouth of the Klamath River were lower than 2002."
Of note, Williams stated that he will request that the National Research Council Committee on Endangered and Threatened Species in the Klamath River Basin review the scientific basis for these fish mortalities prior to completing its review and publishing its final report.
It was also pointed out during the press conference that NMFS is estimating that 132,000 fall-run Chinook will return to the Klamath system this year. At least 20,000 dead fish have been accounted for so far. Reclamation has pointed out in the past week that this year’s return is expected to be the fifth largest in history on the Klamath.
Recent Developments and Press Coverage
In recent days, most papers covering the Klamath fish die-off have taken a more neutral slant, particularly in the wake of Director Williams’ statements on Wednesday. The Los Angeles Times’ headline yesterday read “Officials say it’s too early to tell if shifting more Klamath River water to farms was cause”, and The New York Times’ proclaimed “U.S. Sees No Tie to Water Plan in Deaths of Fish in California”. Many papers continue to rely upon the usual detractors of Klamath Project agriculture - including the Yuroks, PCFFA, and EarthJustice – for commentary. These interests persist in blasting away at Project operations, despite what Williams and other experts say.
Susan Holmes, the legislative representative for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, again attacked the Bush Administration after Wednesday’s press conference.
"They are doing everything they can to dance around giving more water to the fish,” said Holmes in yesterday’s New York Times. “The fish need water. This is a concept you learn somewhere around kindergarten and the Bush administration needs to catch up."
Recent developments that will be closely monitored in the coming weeks by KWUA include the movement of thousands of fish working their way upstream, and an expected push by now- familiar downstream critics for more Klamath Project water. Environmentalists are eying water supplies in Gerber Reservoir and Clear Lake that they would like to use to extend the current pulse flow being sent downstream by the Klamath Project. Those pulse supplies – deriving primarily from Upper Klamath Lake – will be curtailed late next week to avoid drawing lake levels below the limits set in the sucker BO. Water users are bracing for new attacks, but urge patience in the coming months.
“The fish kill controversy will be with us for a long time”, said Dan Keppen, KWUA Executive Director. “I believe we need to be patient, give the experts the time to gather the right information, and contribute to a common-sense solution. Even though it may appear otherwise, we do have allies out there who are thinking of us.”
CALENDAR OF EVENTS
Tuesday, October 8, 2002 - KWUA Demand Reduction Committee Meeting. 6:30 p.m. KWUA. 2455 Patterson Street, Suite 3, KFO
Wednesday, October 9 and Thursday, October 10, 2002 – Klamath Fishery Management Council Meeting. 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Yreka Fish and Wildlife Office, 1829 South Oregon Street, Yreka, CA.
Thursday, October 10, 2002 – KWUA Executive Committee Meeting. 6:30 p.m. KWUA Office.
Friday, October 11, 2002 - Klamath Fishery Management Council Meeting. 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Yreka Fish and Wildlife Office, 1829 South Oregon Street, Yreka, California.
USFWS Director Williams Responds to Media Questions on Klamath River Fish Kill Issue
In a press conference last Wednesday, USFWS Director Steve Williams responded to a barrage of questions from the press:
Q: Congressman Mike Thompson earlier today returned buckets of dead fish to the doorsteps of the Interior Building. He blames the fish kill on Reclamation’s “poor water management plan”. What do you say?
Williams: “We understand this concern. However, I don’t think it is appropriate at this time to identify single factors contributing to the fish kill. We need to try to put the pieces of this puzzle together.”
Q: Earlier this year, the tribes were warning that Reclamation’s plan could result in something like this. How do you respond to that?
Williams: “The fish kill was unexpected. We need to approach our analysis using the scientific method.”
Q: How do you respond to the claims made by downstream tribes and environmentalists that the fish kill is linked to lower flows coming out of the Klamath Project this year.
Williams: “I am not buying into any particular theory at this time. We’ve seen low volumes in the past, but we haven’t seen this level of die-off before. The current environmentalist’s position is a hypothesis that must be tested.”
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