Higher flows ease fears over repeat of Klamath salmon kill

Associated Press
Sierra Times


GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- More water flowing down the Klamath and Trinity Rivers in Northern California is giving an American Indian tribe and California state biologists hope they will not see a repeat of last year's massive salmon kill.

The Yurok Tribe, however, is moving ahead with a lawsuit against the federal government claiming authorities violated treaty obligations by allowing the deaths of 33,000 adult salmon in the lower Klamath last September.

The flows down the Klamath for August and September are about 50 percent higher than last year, said tribal biologist Dave Hillemeier. The fall chinook run this year is predicted to be 113,000 fish, compared to 159,000 last year.

The higher flows are required under the federal plan for restoring threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River because the current water year is classified as below average. Last summer's lower flows were set because the water year was classified as dry.

To prevent a recurrence of last summer's fish kill, Interior Secretary Gale Norton also arranged for higher flows down the Trinity River, which flows into the Klamath above where most of the fish died. The extra water came from flows formerly diverted through a mountain tunnel to the Sacramento River for farms and cities.

Besides higher flows, temperatures have been cooler, the fall chinook run is a week or two late, and the extra Trinity water is cooling the Klamath River, making overall conditions better for fish, said Neil Manji, a biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game.

While some scattered dead fish have been showing up, numbers are not above normal, Manji added. The dead fish do not show signs of the gill rot disease known as "Ich" which accounted for most of the deaths last year.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Jeff McCracken said the Trinity release was triggered by two factors: predictions of a larger-than-average fall chinook run, and expectations that flows near the mouth of the Klamath would drop below 3,000 cubic feet per second, reproducing conditions during last year's fish kill.

The Bureau of Reclamation also spent $4 million this year for some Klamath Reclamation Project farmers to forego irrigation and pump well water into canals to provide more water for endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.

Both the lake level required for suckers and the Klamath flows are being met, said McCracken.

The crisis over sharing water between farms and fish came to a head in the Klamath Basin two summers ago at the start of a drought that continues.

The reclamation bureau shut down irrigation for most of the Klamath Reclamation Project in 2001 to reserve water for endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, the project's main reservoir, and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River, which flows from the lake.

After a National Academy of Sciences review found no scientific basis for the water levels for fish set by government biologists, the bureau restored irrigation to all the 1,400 farms on the project in the summer of 2002.

At the end of September, salmon crowded into warm shallow pools at the start of their spawning run, most of them fall chinook, became infected with a gill rotting disease, and their bodies covered the banks of the river. The California Department of Fish and Game put part of the blame on low flows.

As part of a lawsuit challenging the government's coho salmon restoration plan, the Yurok Tribe alleged that the federal government failed to fulfill its treaty obligations to assure salmon runs were strong enough for harvest.

A federal judge ruled that a separate trial was needed to settle the question. That trial is scheduled for May, Fletcher said.


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