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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
But farm interests in the Klamath region downplayed
“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,”
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (408)