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Feds release water to prevent Klamath salmon kill

By JEFF BARNARD  8/21/04

GRANTS PASS, Ore. - The federal government has bought irrigation water to release down Northern California's Trinity River in hopes of preventing a repeat of conditions that killed more than 34,000 Klamath River salmon two years ago.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation arranged for the release of 36,000 acre feet from the Trinity Reservoir starting after midnight Sunday after federal fisheries biologists advised that water in the lower Klamath River was getting dangerously low and warm for fish.

Low and warm water conditions were two primary factors cited in the deaths of more than 34,000 fish - mostly chinook salmon - in the lower Klamath River in September 2002 after gill-rot diseases raced through fish making their fall spawning run.

Most of the fish died in the 43 miles of the Klamath below the confluence with the Trinity.

Low water left riffles too shallow for fish to swim upstream, bunching them into pools where diseases moved quickly in warm and crowded conditions that left the fish weakened, according to state and federal reports on the fish kill.

"These additional flows should improve water quality and lower water temperature, reduce the potential for fish disease and assist salmon in their upstream migration," said Steve Thompson, regional manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento, Calif. A similar release of extra water down the Trinity was made last summer, and no significant fish kill occurred.

Representatives of an Indian tribe and commercial fishermen who both harvest Klamath River salmon welcomed the increase in Trinity River flows, but complained that more water should also be sent down the Klamath River, where one of the nation's most contentious battles over dividing water between fish and farms has gone on for years.

"The government has no problem going out and finding water on the Trinity side, but refuses to put more water on the Klamath side," said Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, whose reservation lies along the lowest reaches of the Klamath.

"There shouldn't be this disjointed management when you have the same agency responsible for controlling the tap at both ends."

The tribe goes to trial Sept. 20 in U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif., in a lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation claiming the 2002 fish kill breached federal tribal trust obligations.

The flows will follow recommendations from the Trinity Management Council, ramping up to nearly four times the current level, then ramping back down when the release is completed Sept. 13, said Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Jeff McCracken from Sacramento, Calif.

"There is no extra water here," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents California salmon fishermen. "All they are doing is restoring flows to approximately what they should have been if not for all the water diverted over the years."

The water was purchased from irrigation districts in California's Central Valley Project, where for decades more than half the Trinity's flows have been diverted across a mountain range and down the Sacramento River.

McCracken said he did not have the total paid for the extra water, but the going rate is about $60 per acre foot, which would come to about $2.2 million.

McCracken said the action was the result of Fish and Wildlife recommendations, not the recent federal appeals court ruling that more of the Trinity's water should stay in the watershed for salmon, rather than being diverted for irrigation.

McCracken said the bureau is already buying 75,000 acre feet of water from Klamath Reclamation Project farmers to put down the Klamath River for salmon, and must maintain federally mandated levels in Upper Klamath Lake, the source of the river, for endangered suckers.

The bureau is to increase the extra Klamath River flows to 100,000 acre feet next year under terms of mandated by the Endangered Species Act.

Additional water that could be released down the Klamath would not alleviate warm temperatures downstream, because it is much warmer than the Trinity Reservoir water, he added.

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