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U.S. Denies Blame for Die-Off of Salmon

Ecology: Officials say it's too early to tell if shifting more Klamath River water to farms was cause.

October 03, 2002|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Bush administration officials scrambled Wednesday to blunt accusations that the federal government caused last week's die-off of more than 20,000 salmon in the Klamath River by diverting too much water to farmers.

The administration's top wildlife official said it remains too early to tell if low flow levels created on the river by a new federal water plan helped spread a condition known as gill rot through the fall run of chinook salmon.

"I think it's premature to rush to judgment," said Steve Williams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director. "We really want to base any decision we make now or in the future on solid science."

But fishermen, environmentalists, California wildlife officials and Indian tribes that depend on chinook continued to argue that the diversion of water to upstream Klamath Basin farmers artificially starved the river of the water needed to keep the salmon run robust.

"They're trying to blame anyone but themselves for what is clearly a water policy problem," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. "They have created a permanent, institutionalized drought on the lower river."

The jousting came as Spain joined Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Eureka) and tribal leaders in dumping 500 pounds of dead salmon at the doorstep of the U.S. Department of Interior in Washington.

Thompson said the salmon "represent thousands of jobs, millions of dollars and priceless resources that are being destroyed due to the administration's failures in the lower Klamath Basin."

He also called on Interior Secretary Gale Norton to permanently increase the Klamath flows as well as purchase and fallow some agricultural acreage to ease demands on water that he said would be better left in dry years for fish and other wildlife.

Infections Take Toll

State and federal officials estimate that about half of the adult chinook expected to reach upstream spawning grounds and hatcheries this fall succumbed to a combination of protozoa and bacterial infections. Though not an endangered species, the chinook are prized by the commercial salmon fishing industry.

Biologists at the California Department of Fish and Game say they suspect that higher water temperatures and low flows caused the fish to delay their migration upstream, creating crowded conditions that helped to spread the disease quickly.

Facing a catastrophe, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation--the federal agency that manages water projects in the West--agreed to dramatically boost river flows late last week.

Williams said during a telephone news conference Wednesday that the salmon die-off had already begun to ebb by the time the pulse of water reached the chinook about three days after its release. The plan is to again ratchet back flows after two weeks, federal officials said. Although the growing season is over for most farmers, there are concerns about lowering the level of Klamath Lake, where two species of endangered sucker fish live.

California wildlife officials, who said the die-off is the worst in three decades, expressed concern that a cutback in the flows could prove disastrous for the surviving chinook and other impending salmon runs, most notably that of the fragile coho, a federally protected species threatened by extinction.

'We Are Uneasy'

Paul Wertz, a California Fish and Game spokesman, said the worry now is that the surviving chinook could be coaxed upstream, only to be left in dwindling water when the river flows are again cut. The coho, meanwhile, could face a river with far less water even than last year, when one of the worst droughts on record occurred, Wertz said. "We are uneasy about this."

He and other California officials also expressed surprise that their counterparts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seemed reluctant to pin the cause of the die-off on the lower flows.

"I would suspect that the usual bio-politics are at play," Wertz said.

Many foes of Bush's Klamath water plan suggest that the administration's primary motive in favoring farmers over fish this year is to cement the allegiance of the rural constituency that has strongly backed the president.

Last year, farmers in the Klamath Basin saw water deliveries dramatically curtailed so more water could help the fish. The cutbacks caused severe economic turmoil in some farm towns and prompted angry protests.

Vowing to fix the problem, Bush officials pushed through a plan that this year gave farmers a full allotment despite a relatively dry winter. Tribes and environmentalists predicted that the more meager flows down the Klamath--about 25% less than last year--would cause problems.

"The frustrating thing for us is we predicted it," said Dave Hillemeier, fisheries program manager for the Yurok tribe. "You put way too many fish in a small fishbowl, add poor water quality and you're going to have dead fish."

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