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Administration May Cut Klamath's Flow Again

Water: Indian groups and environmentalists say plan to end a temporary increase in the river's level could further devastate fall salmon runs.

October 11, 2002|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The Bush administration pushed ahead Thursday to cut back flows on the Klamath River, prompting angry predictions that the action could wreak havoc on fall salmon runs already hit hard by a die-off that claimed as many as 30,000 fish last month.

Supporters of salmon and the Indian tribes that rely on them for food and jobs said the actions by Bush bureaucrats are further evidence that the administration favors farmers with its water policies.

A collection of tribes, commercial fishermen and environmentalists are predicting that many surviving salmon or their eggs could be stranded as the river's flow is cut by almost a third in the coming days.

"I'm angry, and I'm frustrated," said Sue Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok tribe, which depends on the river, which slices from Oregon into Northern California, emptying on the coast near Crescent City. "The Bush administration could get another black eye over this."

Masten and others had hoped federal water officials would maintain the river at its current level by drawing from two reservoirs--Gerber in Oregon and Clear Lake in California--that have yet to be tapped to help bolster the low flows in the troubled Klamath.

Federal water officials and local groups have been fighting for more than a decade over water from the river. The Klamath must support not only salmon, including one endangered species, the coho, but upriver farmers who want the water for irrigation and downriver users who fish the Klamath.

But federal officials--saying they are still grappling over what exactly caused the massive die-off of salmon last month on the river--contend no easy solution is in sight.

They say taking water from the two reservoirs might not prevent more salmon deaths--because the water might be too warm to help the fish.

When fish began turning up dead in late September to a combination of bacterial and protozoa infections, the Bush administration faced accusations that too much river water was diverted this summer to help farmers upstream. The dearth of water raised water temperatures and harmed the fish, critics said.

Federal water officials responded within days by hiking the river flows. But they said that "pulse flow" would only last about two weeks, because of concerns it would draw down Upper Klamath Lake, creating a whole new set of problems for two species of endangered sucker fish in the Oregon lake.

Sue Ellen Wooldridge, an Interior Department deputy director, said Thursday it is unclear whether tapping Clear Lake or Gerber Reservoir would do more harm than good.

Water from those reservoirs, she said, might be too warm for the fish. She cited a report issued last March by the National Research Council suggesting that warm water--not lower flows--could prove the chief culprit for fish losses on the Klamath.

"It's unfortunately more complicated than just saying fish need more water," Wooldridge said. "What they need is good, quality water."

Tribal leaders and commercial fishermen rejected suggestions that diverting water from the two reservoirs would prove futile. Instead, they suggested that the Bush administration was once again doing what was best for farmers, rather than the fish, including endangered coho salmon.

But farmers worry that drawing off those two reservoirs could create a water shortage in eastern stretches of the Klamath Basin if the coming winter proves dry. Irrigators admit that the two reservoirs are among the hardest hit in dry years.

Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. said it is a sad example of the Bush Administration playing politics.

"The farmers get what they want," he said, "and we get a river full of dead fish."

Angry members of several tribes--the Yurok, Hoopa, Karuk and Klamath--were planning to gather at federal offices in Klamath Falls, Ore., to protest the water cutback on the river, which is key part of their cultural and economic heritage.

"We cannot afford to take another hit," said Masten, noting that the Yurok have suspending fishing to ensure more salmon make it upstream.

"Our people depend on that fishery for our way of life. We can't afford to stand by any longer."

Biologists at the California Department of Fish and Game contend low river flows combined with hot summer weather caused salmon to delay their migration up the Klamath. The crowding of the fish together helped disease spread quickly.

With the increased flows of the last two weeks, many of the surviving fish have moved upstream.

But several new threats lurk, biologists say. As flows decrease, disease could spread anew among adult fish. Eggs laid in gravel-strewn eddies could be left high and dry, meanwhile, as the water recedes.

Moreover, as the river narrows, fish would be forced to spawn in deeper sections where heavy winter flows could scour the bottom, destroying their nests of eggs.

Meanwhile, fish just making their way into the river--including the fragile coho salmon, a species threatened by extinction on the Klamath--could be blocked from entering creeks and tributaries where they spawn.

One such tributary, the Scott River, is already essentially walled off by cobbles at its juncture with the Klamath.

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