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Updated 11:00am - Nov 26, 2014

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Salmon peril worse than 2002?

Nat Pennington of the Klamath Fish Health Assessment Team observed dozens of dead chinook salmon on the Salmon River, a major tributary of the Klamath River, during a recent survey. Submitted
Nat Pennington of the Klamath Fish Health Assessment Team observed dozens of dead chinook salmon on the Salmon River, a major tributary of the Klamath River, during a recent survey. Submitted
Tribes, biologists say feds aren’t taking threat of another major fish kill seriously 

In the wake of a federal agency’s decision not to release Trinity River water to improve conditions for fall chinook salmon entering the Lower Klamath River, local tribes, environmental groups and salmon advocates are crying foul and organizing protests planned for next week in Sacramento.

Tribal officials and environmental groups are warning that the drought conditions on the Klamath River are worse this year than in 2002, when low flows and warm water conditions caused by dams and diversions created the largest fish kill in U.S. history — at least 60,000 dead adult salmon.

This is the first year since the 2002 fish kill that the Bureau of Reclamation has not released extra Trinity River water when conditions for a possible fish kill existed, and tribes, environmental groups and government officials are preparing for a possible repeat of 2002.

In response to the decision, the Yurok Tribe and salmon advocates are organizing a protest at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Sacramento office on Aug. 19, according to a press release.

“Despite the knowledge that migrating Klamath salmon would be in peril from low flows when the fall run started, the Bureau of Reclamation sent an entire year’s worth of cold fish-sustaining flows from the Trinity to the Central Valley,” said Yurok Tribe Chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr. in a statement  (the full statement can be found in the opinion section of the Triplicate website). 

O’Rourke noted that the Yurok Tribe and Hoopa Valley Tribe sent letters to the bureau warning that Klamath salmon would face a “desperate situation” without the supplemental flows.

“The federal government responded by sending more water south,” O’Rourke wrote. “There were no discussions with the tribes or other groups who depend on the river for survival.” 

The bureau has said that the Trinity water is needed to supplement flows needed by endangered fish in the Sacramento Basin, although critics have said the diversion will ultimately benefit Central Valley agriculture.

Reclamation has also stated that it will release Trinity water to the Klamath if there is evidence of disease spreading among fish, but salmon advocates say that the four days it will take for Trinity water to reach the Klamath will take too long, allowing disease to spread before cold Trinity water flushes out the pathogens.

The major threat is a parasite known as Ich, short for Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, which attacks fish in stagnant water.

“The whole idea is to nip it in the bud before it can get a toehold,” said fisheries biologist Joshua Strange of Stillwater Sciences, whose scientific work for the Yurok Tribe is used by fishery managers to determine the flows needed to avoid a fish kill. Strange said that under the Bureau of Reclamation’s recommended protocol, an unknown portion of fish would receive a lethal dose of Ich, and that portion could be very high.

“It’s not like we’re talking about a situation where we have a lot of time to detect an outbreak and take action,” Strange said.

River primed for fish kill

Disease — albeit different disease than what caused the 2002 fish kill — is currently widespread in juvenile salmon in the Klamath River from Iron Gate Dam to the Pacific Ocean, according to a July 28 report that showed that 87 percent of juvenile salmon tested were infected with Parvicapsula minibicornis, a parasite implicated in mortalities of both juvenile and pre-spawning adult salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

A recent survey of 90 miles of the Salmon River, a major tributary of the Klamath, found 55 dead adult salmon and hundreds more dead juveniles than would be expected this time of year, according to Sara Borok, an environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Robert Franklin, senior hydrologist with Hoopa Tribal Fisheries, said in a statement that Lower Klamath salmon have been exhibiting strange behavior.

“We’re seeing obviously sick, disoriented salmon doing things they normally wouldn’t do,” Franklin said.

Vivienna Orcutt of the Hoopa Valley Tribe said there have been reports of “fish missing the scales on their bellies and rolling on the bottom of the river.” 

Amber Shelton, of the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), said that conditions for a fish kill are primed.

“Currently, Klamath River flow is lower than it was in 2002 and temperatures are consistently higher than the acute stress level for chinook, 72 degrees Fahrenheit,” Shelton said in a statement. “Additionally, there are about 10,000 fish pooled up at the mouth of Blue Creek in the Klamath, and the last time this occurred was also in 2002.”

Jan Marnell, the North Coast coordinator for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, met with representatives from the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa tribes on Wednesday to coordinate a response to the possible fish kill.

Brian McNally, director of Del Norte County environmental health, said that the Yurok Tribe is largely handling the monitoring situation due to their larger staff capacity, but his outlook was grim: “I think it’s going to be a cleanup of dead fish is what it’s going to be.”

McNally noted that Klamath dam-owners PacifiCorp worsened the river’s toxic conditions by adding algaecides to the Klamath reservoirs. The algaecide kills the blue-green algae of concern, cyanobacteria, but it causes the algae to release microcystin, a potent liver toxin.

“It seems like a bad thing to do, but it’s been done,” McNally said. 

Pot takes water for salmon

Exacerbating problems of over-allocated water in the Klamath Basin during a drought year is the impact of marijuana grows diverting water from creeks that feed the Klamath.

During a recent multi-agency raid on marijuana grows on or near the Yurok Reservation, law enforcement discovered dozens of examples of Klamath Basin creeks being diverted to grow pot.

The problem is the same for the Hoopa Valley Tribe.

“We’re finding large dugout basins — 3 or 4 feet deep — being used to water marijuana plants,” said Hoopa Forest Supervisor Darin Jarnaghan in a statement. “We’re not getting enough water flow. The majority of the streams in the area have more than half of their water diverted.”

Klamath irrigators cut off

While salmon advocates’ focus has largely been on the release of Trinity water held in Trinity Lake, last week the Bureau of Reclamation shut off deliveries of Klamath River water to 50,000 acres of agriculture land on the Klamath Project in order to meet minimum flows needed for endangered fish.

“This year the irrigators as a whole only received 60 percent of their request for surface water,” said Sheryl Franklin, the bureau’s Klamath Basin Area Office area Manager, in an email to the Triplicate. Franklin said that irrigators only receive water after water needs for fish are fully met, as identified by the May 2013 biological opinion issued by federal fishery 
managers. 

“Reclamation and the other resource agencies monitor the situation very closely and adjust irrigators’ supplies when necessary to provide the water identified for fish,” Franklin said. 

“The Klamath Project is operating in compliance with biological opinions for the protection of five (Endangered Species Act)-listed fish species in Upper Klamath Lake and in the Klamath River itself amid a severe drought across the basin.”

Franklin also said that irrigators have altered farming practices to cope with the drought by idling some farm land, supplementing with groundwater pumping, reducing water for crops, changing crops grown and implementing water conservation 
strategies. 

But tribes and other environmental groups argue that the minimum flows set under the biological opinions are not enough to prevent a fish kill during a drought year.

Yurok Tribe Chairman O’Rourke highlighted how federal, state and tribal scientists worked together after the 2002 fish kill to identify what is needed to prevent another fish kill.

“The multi-agency team found that increased flows disrupt the parasite/host relationship that is necessary for a massive outbreak similar to 2002,” O’Rourke wrote. “The science is clear. We know how to lower the risk of another catastrophe and that is to ensure the flows on the lower Klamath do not get dangerously low.”

Reach Adam Spencer at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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