Salmon kill blamed on water sent to farmers


By Paul Rogers
San Jose Mercury News January 5, 2003

The dramatic die-off of 33,000 salmon last fall along the Klamath River in Northern California was directly caused by the Bush administration’s decision to pump extra water from the river to farmers, biologists from the California Department of Fish and Game have concluded.

The environmental disaster in September left one of the state’s major rivers stacked with rotting salmon, some up to three feet long, from the mouth of the Klamath River near Crescent City to 36 miles upstream. It was the largest die-off of adult salmon ever recorded in the West.

Seeking to control a political embarrassment, the Bush administration said at the time that not enough science was available to conclude what killed the fish.

The 63-page report, issued late Friday night, marks the first official documentation suggesting causes for the die-off. It concludes that fall chinook salmon, steelhead trout and endangered coho salmon died because the U.S. Interior Department diverted so much of the river’s water to farming interests in 2002 that the fish crowded tightly as they returned to spawn from the ocean and fell prey to disease. The die-off killed 25 percent of the river’s fall chinook run, the report found.

State biologists also concluded that unless the federal government leaves more water in the river starting in March, “there is a substantial risk of future fish kills.”

California leaders said Saturday that they would try to persuade the Bush administration to devote more water to fish this year.

“We’ve been working hard to restore fish populations, so when you have a massacre like this, it makes it all the more frustrating,” said Mary Nichols, California’s secretary of resources.

“If Interior had resisted the temptation to do something precipitous, we could have avoided the tragedy of the fish kill and benefited everyone.”

Last March, at a ceremony with more than 500 cheering farmers, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman opened the headgates on irrigation canals in Klamath Falls, Ore., giving farmers full delivery of water from the river amid protests from environmental groups, fishing interests and Indian leaders who predicted calamity for fish downstream in California.

The event followed a national controversy in 2001, when federal authorities cut water deliveries to the farmers to protect fish in a drought year, causing economic hardship and some bankruptcies among southern Oregon farmers.

The amount of water that Norton ordered left in the river in 2002 was less than levels at almost any time since records were first kept in 1951.

Norton required that Klamath River levels past Iron Gate Dam, in Siskiyou County, stay above 749 cubic feet per second in 2002 — a reduction of 25 percent from the required level of 1,000 cubic feet per second in 2001 — and down 42 percent from the river’s 40-year mean of 1,292 cubic feet per second.

“It’s not rocket science: Fish need water,” said Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, based in Klamath, Calif., on Saturday.

“We told the Bush administration in March they would devastate the fishery, that they would kill fish. Our predictions were accurate and they came true. The state’s report proves it.”

The Bush administration said Saturday that it was studying the report and would release one of its own in two months.

“We don’t disagree with it. We don’t agree with it,” said Patricia Foulk, an information officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento. “Our scientists are looking at it, and when we do our own report we will make sure we have firm scientific data to back us up.”

Like an oil spill, photos of thousands of dead salmon are a visceral and powerful image easily understandable to the general public, and carrying political peril.

Saturday, environmental groups, fishermen and U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, the Congress member in whose district the die-off occurred, called on the administration to overhaul the way it manages the Klamath system because of the findings.

“Why should farmers have all the water they need while coastal fishing-dependent communities and fishing families wind up with dead fish and dry rivers?” said Glenn Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

But farm interests in the Klamath region downplayed the study.

“Its conclusions are not surprising, given that California announced similar conclusions within days of the fish kill,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

Keppen, whose organization represents 1,400 farm families, said the fishery had recovered. And he said the report does not properly address farmers’ concerns that the die-off might have been caused by high temperatures or toxic substances in the river.

“It raises more questions that need to be answered,” he said.

State biologists found that temperatures on California’s north coast in September were no higher than normal, averaging 63.6 degrees, and said samples showed there were no toxic substances in the river.

“The September 2002 fish kill was likely caused by a combination of high densities of adult fish in the lower Klamath River (due to low flows and possibly inadequate fish passage) and warm water temperature conditions which are typical for this time of year,” the report said. “These conditions were favorable for a disease outbreak.”

The Klamath River begins at Upper Klamath Lake in Klamath Falls, Ore., where farmers in the 220,000-acre federal Klamath Project draw their irrigation water. It travels 200 miles through some of California’s most rugged and remote forests before emptying into the sea near Crescent City.

In the early 1900s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built a system of canals, pumps and dams to shift water from the river to irrigate cropland in the arid Klamath Basin, which straddles the California-Oregon border.

Decades ago, the federal government gave land and water to World War I and II veterans. Their children and grandchildren still farm there.

Contact Paul Rogers at or (408) 920-5045.

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