Too Hot for Salmon, Klamath River in Court Again

SAN FRANCISCO, California, September 26, 2002 (ENS) - Coastal commercial salmon fishermen, joined by California Congressman Mike Thompson, filed legal papers today in U.S. Federal District Court in San Francisco challenging the federal government's 10 year plan for managing irrigation in the Klamath Basin. They are blaming the deaths of thousands of Klamath River salmon this week on farmers 200 miles upstream who have won federal support for their irrigation needs.

The dead bodies of adult coho salmon now line the banks of the Klamath River in northwest California. They died this week returning from the ocean to spawn as they encountered low river flows and high water temperatures, above the tolerance levels of these cold water fish, federally listed as threatened.

"It's tragic," said Glen Spain of the plaintiff Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations Northwest Office in Oregon. "You stand on the bank and look up the river for miles and down the river for miles, and all you see is dead fish."


Dead fish floating in the Klamath River (Photos by E.J. Finney courtesy Earthjustice)
State, federal and tribal biologists say the salmon died of a gill disease and stress triggered by a hot river. Biologists have counted more than 9,500 dead salmon since Friday.

Adult coho salmon migrate up the Klamath River from mid-September through early November to spawn, with peak migration coming within the next two or three weeks.

Spain says the numbers of dead salmon are now around 40,000 and climbing. "As these fish move higher into the river, they'll find a river at toxic levels of heat and pollutants. No doubt we'll have more die-offs," he said.

Congressman Thompson, a Democrat who represents this district, has joined the lawsuit because he says the fish kill "will only get worse if the Department of Interior continues to ignore the downstream fishing, tribal, and working communities of the lower Klamath Basin."

"These dead fish represent thousands of jobs, millions of dollars, and priceless resources that are being destroyed due to the Bush administration's failures in the Klamath Basin," Thompson said today. "We are only four months into their 10 year water plan, and thousands of fish are already floating to the top of the Klamath River."

The river level is kept "artifially low by the Bureau of Reclamation," Spain alleges. "Last year at this time, during one of the worst droughts in history we had 40 percent more water than we do today. That is a political decision."

The 2001 drought in the Klamath River Basin in Oregon and California forced federal managers to make a choice between delivering irrigation water to local farmers and maintaining stream levels needed to sustain threatened and endangered fish populations in the Klamath River Basin.

Jeffrey McCracken, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation says that the flows in both the Trinity River and the Klamath River "are in accordance with our biological opinions issued by the fisheries agencies."

"It's been a record hot September," said McCracken to explain the high water temperatures at the mouth of the Klamath. "There is no way of providing cold water to this area of the river. It's physically impossible," he said.

"The Upper Klamath Lake is almost 200 miles from the ocean," he explained. "When you release water from a fairly shallow lake and it travels close to 200 miles, there isn't any opportunity for cold water when it gets to the ocean."


Dead fish in the Lower Klamath River
Releases from Upper Klamath Lake form about one-third of the water that goes down the Klamath River. The remaining two-thirds of the water comes from tributaries, the Shasta River, the Scott River, and the largest, the Trinity River.

To protect Klamath River coho salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, in the spring of 2001 the Bureau of Reclamation cut off water to many Klamath Basin farmers. The farmers protested and filed legal action.

During the driest part of last summer, irate farmers tore open an irrigation gate to release water into their parched fields, while environmental groups took to court in their fight to allow water into the area's wildlife refuges.

In March, President George W. Bush created the cabinet level Klamath River Basin Federal Working Group to negotiate the thorny economic and legal issues surrounding water use in the Klamath Basin. Chaired by Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the group includes representatives of the Departments of Interior, Agriculture and Commerce, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

A 10 year plan for the Klamath Basin emerged, and it is this plan that the today's lawsuit is challenging.


Klamath fish kill
Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), the west coast's largest organization of commercial fishing families, said, "We will not just stand by and let the Bureau of Reclamation kill these fish and our way of life."

Over the past 10 years, some 4,000 commercial fishing jobs have been lost, said Spain. "There's not a whole lot left. We represent about 3,000 fishermen, not including the tribes. From Fort Bragg to above Brookings, Oregon, all of those ports are closed. "We cannot fish," he said. "There are too few fish coming out of the Klamath. In order to protect the rest, we have had to close our ports."

This week, the Trinity Management Council, composed of federal, state, tribal and county representatives, sent a letter to Secretary Norton asking her to release what McCracken called "pulse flows" of water down the Trinity River to help the salmon make it upstream to spawn.

McCracken says that if the Interior Secretary allows the pulse flows, they could be released "within minutes," and would take about three days to reach the mouth of the Klamath. But, he says, that the water is hot, not cold, and it is also controlled under a court order in a previous lawsuit, so "we would need to get some sort of ruling from the judge before we could put a slug of water down the Trinity."

The farmers in the Klamath Basin are not to blame for the lack of cold water at the river's mouth, McCracken explained. "I do know that the farmers in the Klamath Basin, we were unable to deliver them any water for the majority of the season, because all the water was earmarked for downstream or to be kept in the reservoir. Normally, the farmers get close to 400,000 acre feet. Last year they got 75,000."

On August 7, Jack and Lynda Baker became the first Klamath Basin farmers to enter into a contract with the U.S. Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service for a voluntary conservation program that promotes environmental quality and conserves scarce water.

Under the program, the Bakers will receive technical and cost-share assistance to improve the efficiency of their irrigation and livestock watering operations and will re-seed their pastures to increase forage. They will fence riparian areas along the Lost River to exclude livestock and re-establish vegetation for wildlife habitat.

Currently, more than 150 producers in the Klamath River Basin in Oregon and California have signed up for the program.

But Spain says "guess-work and voluntary measures," are not enough to save the salmon.

"The fish kill is a lot worse than everybody thinks," said Walt Lara, the Requa representative to the Yurok Tribal Council, told fish advocate Dan Bacher on Monday.

"It's a lot larger than anything I've seen reported on the TV news or in the newspapers. The whole chinook run will be impacted, probably by 85 to 95 percent. And the fish are dying as we speak. They're swimming around in circles. They bump up against your legs when you're standing in the water," said Lara. "These are beautiful, chrome-bright fish that are dying, not fish that are already spawned out."

The fishermen's lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of PCFFA and Institute for Fisheries Resources, joined by The Wilderness Society, WaterWatch of Oregon, Northcoast Environmental Center, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Klamath Forest Alliance, Headwaters, and Congressman Mike Thompson.