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Klamath fish died from dearth of water
By John Driscoll The Times-Standard

Fish and Game report says water the only tool to prevent repeat of 2002 event

Far more salmon may have died in the Klamath River two years ago than was previously thought, and paltry river flows are at the heart of the tragedy.

The California Department of Fish and Game released its final report on the 2002 fish kill Friday. Water flows are the only tool available to agencies to prevent outbreaks of deadly fish diseases, the report reads.

As many as 68,000 chinook salmon died in September 2002, according to the 183-page report, dwarfing earlier estimates of 34,000 fish. Low flows packed an above average run of fish into the lower river, allowing the diseases ich and columnaris to spread rapidly. The fish may also have been impeded by riffles too shallow to swim over, or may have lacked a cue to push upstream, the report reads.

The event stung communities on the lower Klamath, and sharply affected fishing on the river and its principal tributary the Trinity River. Commercial and sport fishermen worry quotas next year may be curtailed or eliminated if the returning offspring of the 2002 fish kill are too few.

Providing more water from the Klamath and the Trinity can improve temperatures, fish passage and migration cues, and break up dense concentrations of fish, reducing disease transmission, Fish and Game said.

"We're talking about flows from both sides," said Steve Turek, senior environmental scientist for Fish and Game.

State and federal agencies, tribes and others have begun meeting to discuss how to prevent a repeat of the 2002 fish kill this year. Some water beyond the base Klamath River flows planned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is available to send down the river, and Reclamation is buying water from Central Valley contractors to be available to send down the Trinity.

What criteria would trigger the increased flows is being worked out by the agencies.

The Fish and Game report recommends that Klamath flows at Orleans and Trinity flows at Hoopa combined should be 2,200 cfs in September. The report also recommends figuring out whether low flows physically block salmon from migrating, what temperatures salmon can tolerate and implementing a flow study called Hardy Phase II.

Irrigators on the central Oregon and California border have railed against the preliminary findings in the Hardy report, which calls for much higher flows on the lower river. They have held that releasing warm water from upstream reservoirs on the Klamath would only harm fish.

In a letter last year to Oregon and California officials and U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Dan Keppen of the Klamath Water Users Association -- which represents irrigators in Reclamation's 220,000 acre project -- said hot water and a large run of fish probably sparked the disease outbreak.

But Turek said water released from the Klamath's lowermost dam, Iron Gate, in September is generally cooler than the river's estuary. He also said that salmon seem to tolerate high temperatures in the middle reaches of the Klamath.

"We're not seeing massive fish kills in those areas," Turek said.

But salmon can't handle being bunched together when a disease is present, he said.

The state report echoes many of the conclusions of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report released last year, but is more staunch in pushing for higher flows. The draft state report was peer review by state and federal biologists, and fisheries experts from Humboldt State and Oregon State universities.

Still, some biologist have concerns about boosting flows in September, especially from only the Trinity, which is cleaner and colder than the Klamath. The worry is that salmon may be stimulated to migrate early by higher flows, only to get trapped in a shallow, hot, middle Klamath River. In the long term, some are concerned that Klamath fish may begin to stray up the Trinity, changing the face of the runs in the watershed.

Yurok Tribe Chairman Howard McConnell said he believes federal agencies are beginning to listen to the tribe, which warned of a fish kill in 2002. But he believes the biologists are concerned about reprisals from high levels in the Bush administration, which has strongly backed upstream farmers.

And he doubts there will be a change.

"We don't see them changing until we go through court," McConnell said. "We're just going to have to do that process."

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said the fish kill's effects on commercial salmon catches from Washington to San Francisco are likely to be dire.

"The sad part of the equation is that the Bush administration is still showing that they don't care about the downstream communities," Thompson said.

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