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Liquid Lifeline for Salmon

October 06, 2002

Rebellious farmers and ranchers from along the California-Oregon border threatened to seize U.S. Bureau of Reclamation water-diversion facilities by force more than a year ago after the bureau took the irrigation water they had been using and turned it back into the Klamath River to save endangered species of fish.

It was an ugly scene. In severe drought conditions, crops were drying up and farmers were going broke. Finally in July, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton ordered the release of some water from Upper Klamath Lake to the farmers.

This year, the farmers were assured they would get their full supply, reducing Klamath flows from the year before by 25%. Both Norton and Agriculture Secretary Anne M. Veneman traveled to the Klamath to make the high-visibility announcement, part of a campaign to achieve "balance" between users of resources and the environment--another way of saying the Clinton administration went too far in protecting the environment.

Now, in the last two weeks, 20,000 to 30,000 mature salmon swimming upstream to spawn have died in the shallow waters of the Klamath. Environmental groups, members of the Yurok tribe, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. and businesses along the river are up in arms.

Fisheries experts say the chinook salmon, weighing up to 40 pounds, succumbed to a combination of protozoa and bacterial infection. The exact cause may not be known for months. But water temperatures on the Klamath reached as high as 72 degrees--lethal for salmon. State officials also say the salmon were vulnerable because so many of them were crowded into the same dwindling waters.

Norton ordered increased river flows for 14 days in an attempt to stop the die-off. But there isn't enough water in the Klamath to meet all needs, especially in a dry year. Ultimately, the federal government needs to buy up some of the farms and idle their fields.

Soon, the endangered coho salmon and steelhead species will head upstream, too. About half the adult chinook expected to spawn this year died. The Yurok tribe has lived off salmon for centuries, but has been able to run commercial fishing operations only five of the last 15 years.

The federal government should maintain adequate flows. And everyone should hope for a nice wet winter.

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