Just three days after hundreds of Native Americans and activists protested outside the Bureau of Reclamation’s regional headquarters in Sacramento, the federal agency announced Friday that it will release extra water from the Trinity River reservoir to prevent a massive salmon-kill in the Lower Klamath River.
Indian tribal members, Humboldt County officials and river activists have been campaigning for extra Trinity water since early July, when Reclamation announced that it would only release water if dead and diseased salmon started appearing.
Indian tribes and river activists said that conditions were primed for a repeat of the 2002 fish-kill, when river diversions to Central Valley farmers during a drought led to the death of 60,000 adult salmon in the Lower Klamath River, leaving an ominous smell of death that tribal members say they’ll never forget.
“We’re very pleased that the Bureau of Reclamation reconsidered their decision. It has been through the hard work and efforts of a lot of people,” said Yurok Tribe Vice Chair Susan Masten. “At the end of the day, our science won out, and that is the best science available for our river and our fisheries.”
Reclamation officials agreed that the science was on the side of the tribes and salmon advocates.
“We have determined that unprecedented conditions over the past few weeks in the lower Klamath River require us to take emergency measures to help reduce the potential for a large-scale fish die-off,” Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific Regional Director David Murillo said in a statement. “This decision was made based on science and after consultation with tribes, water and power users, federal and state fish regulatory agencies, and others.”
Hoopa Valley Tribe Fisheries Director Michael Orcutt noted his appreciation that the decision was based on “sound science developed by tribal, state and federal agencies.”
“The fishery is also integral to the sport and commercial in-river and ocean fishing economy of California’s North Coast communities and beyond,” Orcutt said.
A Hoopa Valley tribal delegation approached Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in Redding on Aug. 11 pleading with her to allow flows down the Trinity for salmon. A press release from the Hoopa Valley Tribe details how Secretary Jewell paused to greet a Hupa child who with the delegation objecting to the decision to not release Trinity water:
“As the secretary bent to take the children’s hands she was met with the question: ‘Are you going to do the right thing?’ The secretary, taken aback, asked the child to repeat the question. The child asked, ‘Are you going to do the right thing? Are you going to save our salmon?’”
Days later, Reclamation officials toured the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s reservation to review the drought conditions.
Trinity water for Central Valley
In the 1960s, up to 90 percent of the Trinity River was diverted to the Sacramento River basin to be used for agriculture interests there, but after the devastation that diversions caused to salmon was realized, a plan was adopted in 2000 to split Trinity River water roughly half-and-half between its natural river path and diversions to the Central Valley.
But even this year, during California’s worst drought on record, Reclamation was sending more than 80 percent of the Trinity’s water to the Sacramento basin, where it is largely used for agriculture, for most of the month of July.
In a statement issued before Friday’s decision from Reclamation, Congressman Jared Huffman blasted Reclamation’s water management practices:
“Even as Humboldt County, the Hoopa and Yurok tribes and I were demanding more Trinity River flows for salmon, (Reclamation) unwisely diverted so much water from Trinity Lake to the Sacramento River that it irreversibly compromised the cold water reserve in Trinity Lake needed to protect Trinity and Klamath River fisheries. In July alone, Reclamation sent 152,000 acre-feet of water from Trinity Lake into the Sacramento River basin, and North Coast salmon could pay the price for this error.”
After Reclamation announced a decision during similar drought conditions last summer to release emergency Trinity flows to prevent a fish-kill, Central Valley irrigators sued the federal government and won an injunction blocking the flows until a judge agreed with the science presented by tribes showing the need for extra flows.
Tribal officials are hoping that Central Valley irrigators do not attempt another lawsuit this year after Friday’s decision.
“We are very excited to have the releases we requested; however, it’s just a Band-Aid when you look at the long-term solution,” said Danielle Vigil-Masten, Hoopa chairwoman. “We are praying that nobody does an injunction or anything on it so they can go ahead with the releases and save our salmon.”
During conversations with Reclamation Friday morning, the Yurok Tribe emphasized the need for flow management to change in the future, Yurok Vice Chair Masten said.
“I hope what this does is cause us to begin to plan for next year now, so we’re not waiting for the last minute when we could be experiencing severe threats to the fishery,” Masten said. “We’re hoping to start those discussions now for adequate releases for next year.”
When the 2002 fish-kill occurred, there was little scientific knowledge to identify what kind of conditions create a fish-kill.
“Our science is more precise now because we went through that kill,” Masten said, adding that now scientists can predict when fish are at risk.
“I think it was the tenacity of the tribe and because the fishery is so important to our way of life and our ceremony that they finally heard us and reviewed our science with their scientists and found it to be solid,” Masten said.
Boosted flows through Sept.
As announced Friday, Reclamation will boost releases from Lewiston Dam beginning at 7 a.m. Saturday, from 450 cubic feet per second to 950 cfs to achieve a flow rate of 2,500 cfs in the lower Klamath River — the flow determined by tribal scientists to be necessary to prevent a fish-kill.
Starting at 7 a.m. Monday, a large boost of flows, 2,450 cfs, will be sent downriver in order to have 4,000 cfs in the lower Klamath River, flushing out the disease-causing parasites.
The major threat is a parasite known as Ich, short for Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, which attacks fish in stagnant water. The extra flows make it harder for the parasite to attack fish.
The large release will be maintained for approximately 24 hours before returning to the amount necessary to maintain lower Klamath River flows at 2,500 cfs until Sept. 14.
“We fully recognize that during this prolonged severe drought, every acre-foot of water is extremely valuable, and we are making every effort to conserve water released for fish health purposes to reduce hardships wherever possible,” Reclamation’s Murillo said in a statement.
The bureau said the extra water for Klamath River fish would not reduce the amount of water diverted to the Sacramento River system, where much of it ultimately goes to irrigation for farms. The extra releases will mean less water carrying over the winter for next year, said operations manager Ron Milligan.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.