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U.S. Orders Water Release Into Klamath River After Fish Die-Off

September 27, 2002|STEVE HYMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with evidence of a massive die-off of salmon and the prospect of a lawsuit, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Thursday ordered an emergency release of water from Upper Klamath Lake into the lower Klamath River.

"What's happening on the lower river right now, we don't understand," bureau Commissioner John Keyes said late Thursday. "But we're trying to get an understanding to see if something needs to be done differently."

Keyes said 10,000 acre-feet of water will be released from the lake in coming days and allowed to flow downstream to the lower Klamath, where at least 12,000 salmon have died since last week.

Commercial fishermen and environmentalists blamed the fish kill on the Bush administration's decision to divert water from the river to increase deliveries to farmers in the Klamath Basin. Joined by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), the coalition, led by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns., filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Oakland challenging the federal government's 10-year operating plan for the river.

The suit alleges that the Bureau of Reclamation's plan leaves insufficient flows for fish.

The groups said the policy violates the Endangered Species Act because water reductions threaten the coho salmon that will soon enter the Klamath for their annual spawning run. Most of the dead fish were wild or hatchery-raised chinook salmon.

Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation said his group would not drop the lawsuit because of the emergency release.

"This suit is about water for the future," Spain said. "The whole 10-year plan is flawed, and we shouldn't have to get a release on an ad hoc basis each year. There should have been more water in the river to prevent a kill in the first place."

Keyes said the announcement of the release was not in response to the lawsuit.

When the plan was unveiled in December, the bureau's parent agency, the U.S. Department of Interior, said it offered an innovative way to build consensus among farmers and fishermen while increasing future flows for salmon.

Keyes on Thursday reaffirmed the plan's validity, saying one of its strengths is that it can be amended when more information about the current fish kill is available. The National Academy of Sciences is to release a report in March on what flow rates are needed to ensure the survival of salmon.

But many remain skeptical that the plan will ever solve the region's water wars.

"The administration wants to use what they are doing on the Klamath as a model for other water issues in the West; and if this is what they are planning to do, it's doomed to disaster," said Jonathan Birdsong, a legislative aide to Thompson.

The fish are believed to have been killed by gill rot, which salmon are vulnerable to when river water becomes too warm. None of the fish that died reached their upstream spawning grounds.

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