By Kent Gray
Triplicate staff writer
Low water flows on the Klamath River last year ultimately were responsible for the death of several thousand salmon, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The "Klamath River Fish Die-off September 2002" report, which was released yesterday, has environmentalists, fishermen and tribes claiming validation for what they claim is irresponsible federal policy that resulted in the fish kill.
"The report itself, from our perspective, is pretty good," said Steve Pedery, outreach director with WaterWatch. "It basically says that the low water flow was a contributing factor ... It really boils down to an inadequate flow of water."
Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, concurred.
"This is exactly what we knew all along before the report came out and even before the fish kill," Fletcher said. "We said a low flow would lead to the death of the fish, and it did."
Although the long-awaited report specifically points to two types of fish pathogens as causing the deaths of the 33,000 Klamath salmon, it says the low water levels and warm temperatures created an environment that caused the deadly pathogens to flourish.
The report said the low river flows, particularly out of Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River, failed to draw adult fish upstream. That left large numbers of fish crowding into warm pools where they succumbed to the fast spread of deadly gill rot diseases, according to the report.
Agency Director Steve Williams said the report was consistent with the recent findings of a National Research Council panel of scientists, which found that solving the water problems of the Klamath Basin require a range of fixes, not just putting more water down the river.
The fish kill has been a central issue in the battle over water in the Klamath Basin. It came after the Bureau of Reclamation restored full irrigation to the Klamath Reclamation Project. That ended a shut-off to meet Endangered Species Act demands for endangered suckers in Upper Klamath lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.
Environmentalists and commercial salmon fishermen said they hoped the report would push the Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the split of water between the Klamath Reclamation Project and the Klamath River, to allocate more water to the river.
"Flow is one of the major factors they identify, and it is the one we can do something about," Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice, said of the report. Boyles represents commercial salmon fishermen and environmentalists in legal battles over the Klamath.
Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Jeff McCracken said that was unlikely.
The agency has a biological opinion dictating how much water it must release down the river to maintain threatened coho salmon, and the Fish and Wildlife Service report does not direct any change in flows, he said.
McCracken added that the Klamath Project accounts for only a third of the flows where the fish died.
Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said the report points to a combination of factors, not just releases from Iron Gate Dam.
"One of the things this points out is the need to improve monitoring on the lower river so when these things happen we have the best means to put an assessment together," Keppen said. "We saw the blame game because of the vacuum of information immediately after the fish died."
The report is likely to become evidence in the trial of the Yurok and Hoopa tribes' lawsuit against the federal government claiming its decision to restore irrigation to the Klamath Project violated trust responsibilities to sustain salmon harvests.
Fletcher said the report showed that federal management plans focusing on threatened coho salmon also needed to include chinook salmon, which the tribes depend on for food and cultural activities.
"We're tired of seeing the government use this as a political issue. Our fish aren't Republicans, and they aren't Democrats," Fletcher said. "The government needs to take a leadership role and solve the basin issues, and we are willing to help. Anything that sustains the status quo won't help."
The report said it was clear the salmon died from two gill rot diseases known as ich and columnaris, and the death toll was the largest on record for adult salmon in the Klamath River and possibly the Pacific Coast.
Chinook salmon returns in the fall of 2002 were the eighth largest since 1978, and average monthly flows in the river were the fifth lowest in the same period, creating a "unique combination," the report said.
Associated press writer Jeff Barnard contributed to this report.