A federally protected Wild and Scenic River, the Klamath flows 255 miles southwest from Oregon through northern California, and empties into the Pacific Ocean, draining a watershed that encompasses over 12,600 square miles.
The Klamath and its tributaries support the highest diversity of anadromous fishes of any river in California. These fishes, which migrate from salt water to spawn in fresh water, include salmon, cutthroat trout, steelhead and sturgeon.
The tribes that live along the Klamath rely on the river for subsistence, transportation and ceremony, as they have for thousands of years. These tribes include the Yurok, Hoopa Valley, Karuk, Quartz Valley and Resighini Rancheria on the lower stretches of the river in California, and the Modoc and Klamath in the upper basin in Oregon.
Today, the entire Klamath River is listed as "impaired" under the Clean Water Act.
Under the Act, states and authorized tribes must calculate and limit the amount of pollutants allowed to enter impaired waters, called Total Maximum Daily Loads or TMDLs.
The Klamath River as it flows into the Copco Reservoir and mixes with cyanobacterial blooms (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)
The water quality improvement plan, or TMDL, approved by the U.S. EPA requires cutting nutrient pollution in the California portion of the river that has been causing harmful algae blooms.
The nutrient chemicals phosphorus and nitrogen are spread on agricultural fields to increase crop yields.
The TMDL requires that phosphorus be reduced by 57 percent, nitrogen by 32 percent, and carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand by 16 percent.
"This historic Klamath River plan charts the path to restoring one of our nation's largest, most scenic and biologically important watersheds," said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA's regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. "By establishing clear benchmarks and accountability this plan will ensure that Klamath River can thrive long into the future."
The Klamath River's aquatic habitat degradation is due to organic enrichment/low dissolved oxygen, excessively warm water temperatures and algae blooms associated with high nutrient loads, water impoundments, and agricultural diversions, the EPA said.
Algal blooms can release toxins, posing moderate to significant health risks from skin rashes and fevers, to livestock poisoning and liver toxicity.
Since 2004, levels of cyanobacteria and microcystin toxins at several locations on the California stretch of the Klamath have exceeded World Health Organization standards.
TMDLs for several water bodies in the Klamath Basin - the Trinity River, Scott River, Shasta River, Lost River, and the Klamath Straits Drain - are also being implemented to address impairments due to excessive pollution.
Reductions vary for each reach of the Klamath River, with the most significant reductions required from Stateline through the Klamath Hydroelectric Project reservoirs.
The TMDL calls for annual reductions in the river's reservoirs of more than 120,000 pounds of nitrogen and 22,000 pounds of phosphorus.
"The Klamath particularly is a troubled river system, and once supported the third largest salmon runs in the nation," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "Implementation of these Klamath Mainstem TMDLs will go a long way toward helping restore those key salmon runs, and the jobs those salmon once supported."
A partnership between the U.S. EPA, the California's North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality began in 2003.
California's plan received extensive public review and was approved by both the Regional Board and the State Water Board prior to approval by the U.S. EPA.
"It is truly good news that the current round of water quality planning for the Klamath River is complete," said Catherine Kuhlman, executive officer of the North Coast Regional Board. "Now, it's time for action to reduce water pollution and restore the river in order to enhance the myriad of beneficial uses of the river."
The companion plan for the upper reaches of Klamath River in Oregon was released by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality on December 21, 2010; EPA's Pacific Northwest region is expected to act on Oregon's plan this month.
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