In 2001, farmers in the Klamath Basin were denied water from the Klamath River, fields dried up and people went bankrupt. In 2002, water was diverted to farmers but that left river levels too low and 30,000 salmon suffocated in shallow pools. Now water managers are trying to fashion solutions. This is the second in a series of three stories that examines the crisis from the perspective of farmers, wildlife managers and tribal fishermen.
By Laura Brown
Triplicate staff writer
When fall-run chinook salmon began their migration into the Klamath River last August, hundreds of anglers, both sport and tribal, lined the banks of the mouth daily. The set nets bounced with healthy live fish as bare-chested men and boys pulled the 20- to 40-pound fish into their boats. Some tribal members fished for subsistence, others camped on the beach all summer, reaping the harvest and making a living from the run.
"There was so many fish and such big fish. I caught the biggest fish I ever caught this year," said Raymond Mattz, a lifelong Yurok fisherman. His prize, a 59-pounder.
Then in late September, the mood on the river changed. Mattz watched helplessly when more than 30,000 adult chinook and coho salmon, steelhead and sturgeon washed up dead along the river's banks and sank like ghostly apparitions to the river's bottom. The stench of rotting flesh permeated the river community for weeks. Months later, the state of California would decide the fish-kill was caused when river water was diverted for irrigation to farmers in the Upper Klamath Basin, leaving downstream flows too low to accommodate a moderate run of fish.
"This here hurt the soul of the Indian. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it," said Mattz speaking from his sister's Requa home in October. "It's just like they stabbed us in the back. They knew where they was going to hurt us the worst, might as well kill the fish, set us back another 30 years."
Mattz has a long history fighting for fishing rights on the Klamath. When traditional net fishing became illegal after the 1930s, Mattz's family would wait until nightfall to set their nets. But Mattz didn't want to sneak around after dark to uphold an honored part of his culture. In the late-60s, he challenged the ban and five nets were confiscated and charges were brought against him. A battle in the U.S. Supreme Court ensued, and in a landmark decision, aboriginal fishing rights were restored to the Yurok Tribe. It was the first decision of its kind in California.
In 1978, after mining, logging, hydroelectric and irrigation demands combined with commercial and sport fishing diminished salmon runs, Indian fisheries on the river were closed for conservation reasons. Anger brewed, tensions were high and federal troops were sent in full riot gear with M-16 rifles to "keep the peace." Mattz again became a target for authorities.
Known as a vocal bootlegger, he was awakened in the night by Fish and Game officials with guns who demanded to search his trailer for "illegal" fish. His wife was dragged along the beach by armed federal officials. Mattz speaks of that time like a war veteran with post-traumatic-stress syndrome. He is visibly shaken by the memories. The recent fish-kill has brought them all back.
"We're fighting the government still, and it's not going to change the way I see it. They put us in the same position all the time," said a frustrated Mattz, who looked down at his hands as he spoke.
Although a new housing development and an impressive Yurok tribal government office recently was built in Klamath on the Yurok reservation, there's no question many descendants of the once-prosperous river people live in poverty today. The town of Klamath, which once pampered celebrities on sport-fishing excursions in the 1940s and 1950s, is still struggling to get back on its feet after a 1964 flood wiped out the entire townsite, forcing inhabitants to rebuild on higher soil. Rundown trailers and old cars are the only homes available to some.
"We're not the power. We don't hold the votes, there's not enough of us and I think sometimes it's because we're Indian people and it's a government policy and it's been a government policy since they've come to our land," said Yurok Tribal Chair Susan Masten, who believes that politics, not science, is dictating water management decisions.
In a report released by Fish and Game earlier this month, low flows coming from the Iron Gate Dam were determined to be the only controllable factors that contributed to the fish-kill. High water temperatures and riverborne bacteria are factors that are always present but did not lead to fish mortality in previous years because flow levels were higher or fish returns were lower, according to the report.
The Yurok tribe, citing gross mismanagement by the bureau and its governing agency, the Department of Interior, has joined a lawsuit with Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association, North Coast Environmental Center, Klamath Forest Alliance, U.S. Representative Mike Thompson and others challenging the Bureau of Reclamation and NMFS. They say the federal agencies are operating in a violation of the Endangered Species Act and are seeking a review of the current 10-year operating plan that sets river flows. The Bush administration denies any negligence.
And further upstream, the Hoopa Tribe has its own concerns about water diversions from the Trinity River.
When the Lewiston and Trinity dams were built in 1963, 90 percent of the Trinty River's water was diverted to the Central Valley for irrigation. Soon after, the candlefish "quo-roy", an oily winter-run fish that spawned in the lower Klamath River when it flowed bank to bank, began an abrupt decline.
"Before, there was no limit on them," said Mattz. The fish historically spawned in the lower Klamath in such numbers that 40 pounds of fish could be harvested with one dip of a net and Mattz remembers hauling the smoker fish home by the truckload. Their presence on the river now has diminished along with the pink and chum salmon.
Fishing is synonymous with the Yurok people. It was and remains an important part of the culture, while other aspects of the tribe's identity, such as language, have slowly been lost.
"They fished and traded fish for their lives, you know, for their livelihood. People came from upriver and brought acorns and whatever from upriver down to here. They brought deer and everything from upriver and traded it for fish, giant fish, ocean fish and seaweed, just stuff from the ocean. That's how they lived, trading fish. I never saw anything wrong with it myself. I was proud to be a fisherman," said Mattz.
The tribes of the Klamath and Trinity the Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk historically lived in numerous bands along the water's edge. While the ancient tradition of building fish dams from poles is no longer carried out, there was hope that the diminished fisheries could be restored.
In 2000, during a victorious ceremony held at the Hoopa Valley Tribe, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed a Record of Decision that would return 47 percent of Trinity's water to the Klamath, but the celebration was short-lived.
Westland's Water District, the largest in the country to receive federal water and the fifth largest agricultural empire in the world, immediately filed a countersuit to the decision. Last month, Judge Oliver Wanger capped the amount of water restored to the river until the Bureau of Reclamation can complete a supplemental environmental study for winter-run coho in the Sacramento River, delta smelt in the San Francisco and San Joaquin delta and fish species in the Trinity River. Though the Trinity River never flowed there until irrigation projects diverted it, scientists now see the water as critical for threatened species in the Sacramento basin. The bureau must also analyze the effects of decreasing the use of Trinity's water for power-generating plants.
The ruling judge in the case granted only four months to complete the studies, which bureau officials say may not be enough time to compile the information. The Hoopa Valley Tribe says the timetable given by Wanger is not adequate and they have voted to file an appeal against his decision.
"Every year we're going to run into a situation," said Hoopa Tribal Chairman Lyle Marshall. "Is it going to be years of litigation? We're appealing because it's a horrible decision. We're going to move forward to save this river. Northern California is such a unique place. This is probably one of the last places in California that has wild rivers flow into the ocean. If we can't save it for ourselves we need to save it for the rest of California and mankind."
So far, no long-term solutions have evolved and each year everyone holds their breath, praying for sufficient snow pack.
"That's what's really frustrating for us because we have legal water rights. So there's a blatant disregard for the legal obligation as well as their trust obligations to the tribes, but also the species the tribes depend on," said Masten.
Mattz would like to see more immediate results if disaster strikes again. He sees Klamath locals as important observers who could add a lot to current investigations. The voices of his neighbors and family are falling on deaf ears, he says.
"It feels like we just stepped in a hole, in a trap, and we can't even move," said Mattz.
Last spring, the tribes pleaded with the federal government to re-examine a 10-year biological plan that controls flows on the Klamath to protect coho salmon, and warned it would jeopardize not only threatened coho but all river species.
"You can't separate an ecosystem. You can't just manage for coho and that's what we think is being done. We think all species need to be looked at, because when one's impacted, several are going to be impacted," said Masten.
It took more than three months for Fish and Game to release its findings on the Klamath River fish kills. It is taking Fish and Wildlife even longer. National Marine Fisheries Service says they are still reviewing data and are waiting for a final report from the National Academy of Sciences expected to be released March 30.
"It's still premature to say what the fish kill will have on water management decisions. We really don't fully understand the dynamics of this fish-kill. We don't know that flow factors were an issue," said Jim Lecky of the National Marine Fisheries Service soon after the state released its findings. He says that the Fish and Game report neglected to look at some issues including flows coming from the Trinity.
"There are some questions we have about that report. It makes a leap that flows from the Klamath Basin are the only factor," said Lecky.
Mattz thinks the time for passive protest is long gone. He sees a younger generation rising and points to treesitters and other environmentalists who have pulled off more drastic shows of protest.
"My folks are all gone. So many people have done passed away, you know, that fought. They would have had a fit over something like this. They would be piling up fish on the Klamath bridge and blocking traffic with it. That's what should happen. We should go to war again. That's the way I feel about it, that's how bad it hurts," said Mattz.
Today Mattz and his wife care for their four grandchildren, two sets of twins, ages 4 and 5. The children's small voices carry like windchimes across the room as they play beneath a window with a postcard view of the Klamath's mouth. The sea crashes on one side of the long sand spit and gulls congregate around some food the river has cast aside.
"I just hope it don't affect them," Mattz said. "I hope they can grow up and go fishing and make their living fishing. I was hoping my son could make a living fishing. It's going to affect the river for a long time, I know that."
Coming Wednesday: Wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin can play a key role in the health of the Klamath River, but they have the lowest priority for water and many are drying up.