KLAMATH: Get Ready for the Next Water Battle

Report by J.J. Johnson
Sierra Times


San Francisco - On Friday, a report by the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) on the September Klamath River fish die-off was released to agencies. The CDFG report aims to assess why 33,000 Chinook salmon and other fish died of two diseases early this fall. Both sides are expected in an Oakland, California court Thursday, setting the stage for yet another battle of water rights for the Klamath Basin Farmers against the environmentalists.
The CDFG report found that restricted fish passage and increased fish density are the likely triggers for the demise of part of this year's good run of fish. The report contends that flow is the only factor that can be controlled to any degree, and that flow is regulated by operations of federal reservoirs located upstream on the Klamath and Trinity Rivers. The state has previously pointed to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation management of the Klamath and Trinity rivers as the catalyst for those conditions.

Glen H. Spain, regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations told the New York Times, "The water has been overcommitted and the demand has to be brought back into balance with the supply."

But the water was 'committed' to the farmers since at least the Truman administration. Spain and others plan on using the deaths of 33,000 fish as their new weapon against the basin residents. But the Klamath Irrigators say many questions about the report remain to be answered.

"We are currently reviewing the CDFG report with interest, though its conclusions are not surprising, given that California announced similar conclusions within days of the fish kill, long before any study had been undertaken," said the Klamath Water Users Association via press release.

The water users are especially troubled that several key questions are not addressed in the report:

? The report does not attempt to investigate the relationship between ambient air temperatures and water temperatures. Recent studies conducted by the water users suggest that ambient air temperatures - something the Klamath Project has no control over - play a critical role in resulting water temperatures. The CDFG report's conclusions differ from water user findings, which showed that water temperatures in the Klamath River downstream of Iron Gate Dam (IGD) during September 2002 were unsuitable for adult salmon.

? The report appears to focus on flows at IGD, located far upstream from the fish die-off. However, the report does not address the fact that low inflows into Upper Klamath Lake during the late summer were often less than the amount being released to the Klamath River at IGD. What would the flow conditions have been like without this stored water?

? The fish die-off occurred below the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity Rivers, 200 miles downstream from the Klamath Project. What is the significance of this, especially since the Trinity fish appear to have been hit the hardest?

? The report makes no mention that the hatchery returns at IGD are the third highest in the past 40 years (see below). The report does not address what appears to be an over-escapement of fish at IGD. What happened to the fish that made it to the hatcheries, but were in excess of those needed to replace eggs?

? The report finds that sampling conducted over a two-day period confirms that no toxic substances were present at concentrations to have caused the fish kill. However, it appears that testing was performed only for nutrients and pesticides, one week after dead fish were first reported. The report does not address the state of water quality conditions in the river at the time the disease outbreak was first reported.

Water users in the Klamath Basin are also concerned about the tone of the report, how it will be interpreted by the media, and its potential use by opponents of irrigated agriculture. Major media publications wasted no time in pointing the finger at the Bush Administration and Interior Secretary Gail Norton's decision to let the water flow back to the farmers last year.

According to California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) representatives at Iron Gate Hatchery and in Redding, numbers of salmon and steelhead returning to Klamath River hatcheries were looking good, as of December 23, 2002.

At Iron Gate Hatchery, 24,641 Chinook adults, 950 adult Coho, and 114 adult steelhead have returned. This is the third highest total since the hatchery began monitoring returns in 1961. Iron Gate Hatchery only needs 8,000 returning fish to meet production goals.

On the Trinity River, 15,553 salmon hatchery fish have returned, of which 6,647 are Coho. Also, 1,425 steelhead have returned, which, according to CDFG, is a "phenomenally high" number; only 13 came back 20 years ago. Enough eggs were produced to meet CDFG's needs.

Thus far this year, an estimated total of 122,000 fish have returned to the Klamath-Trinity system, including approximately 33,000 fish that died on the lower river in late September / early October. These numbers do not reflect spring-run Chinook returns, which will raise the total higher.

Jeffrey S. McCracken, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, the Interior Department agency that administers federal water policies, defended the decision last year to divert more water to farmers, saying it was based on advice from federal biologists. He said a decision about this year's flows would not be made until studies of the fish die-off are completed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Academy of Sciences.

McCracken also publicly questioned the objectivity of the new report by the California biologists, since state officials began blaming the federal government for the fish kill last September, when the fish were still dying.


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