The drought of 2013–2014 didn’t sneak up on us. For the first half of the winter it simply didn’t rain. Sparse rains arrived late in the season and there was meager snowpack in the mountains. The Yurok Tribe and California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a major drought emergency.
Water managers scrambled to figure out how to best allot a limited amount of Trinity River water, which flows into the Klamath, amongst many competing interests. 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. The Yurok Tribe, and others, including the Hoopa Valley Tribe, sent letters to the agency warning that salmon will face a desperate situation by late summer — if preventative flow is not available.
The federal government responded by sending more water south. Cold water stores were depleted in Trinity and Shasta Reservoirs. There were no discussions with the tribes or other groups who depend on the river for survival. Last week, a hastily convened technical meeting was held, but it appeared as if the decision had been made already, as requests for follow-up meetings were not heeded. Water managers pointed to limited cold water supplies left in the reservoirs and said that the Trinity salmon would have to go without. There was no mention in their press releases of the huge volumes of water previously sent to the Central Valley.
The 2014 fall salmon run is beginning to enter the Klamath River, which is running at about 75 degrees. The low flows have created a perfect environment for fish pathogens to thrive, and up to 100 percent of the juvenile fish in the river have been infected by disease, according to the Klamath Fish Health Assessment Team, a coalition of tribal, federal and state scientists.
The amount of water required, and shown to be needed by even the federal government’s scientists, was less than 5 percent of what was sent to the Central Valley. Federal water managers were unwilling to hold back even a tiny fraction of the available water from well-connected agribusinesses. As a result of this risky gamble, the threat of a fish kill is now considerably higher. Before the Klamath water exportation, a fish kill was a preventable calamity. Now, if the unthinkable happens (again), the responsibility will sit squarely with the Bureau of Reclamation.
As hard as it is to contemplate, there is a significant chance this year might turn out to be a repeat of the 2002 fish kills. We are readying response crews, making emergency plans and increasing vigilance on the river.
We may get through this drought year without a catastrophic fish kill, or we may not. Regardless, the risk is unacceptably high because of Reclamation’s refusal to allow Trinity River water to save Trinity and Klamath River fish. One thing that is for certain is the fact that if a large number of fish perish prematurely, the impact will last for more than a fishing season.
The smell in 2002 of more than a half million pounds of rotting salmon, and then Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton’s role in the catastrophe, will never be forgotten. The fish kill was caused by a decision to send the water elsewhere during a drought.
In the years after the fish kill, the best scientists from the federal government, the tribes and the state of California gained a collective understanding of what caused the fish kill and how to best prevent one from ever happening again. The multi-agency team found that increased flows disrupt the parasite/host relationship that is necessary for a massive outbreak similar to 2002. 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.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s current plan allows for additional water in the event of a fish kill. This is proven to be ineffective. We need more water now to prevent another disaster.
The Yurok Tribal Council is doing everything it can to secure more water, including meeting with high ranking Bureau of Reclamation officials to make a scientific and legal case for additional flows. The tribe is also organizing a protest on Aug. 19 at the bureau’s Sacramento office. We encourage you to attend and to contact your congressional representative to voice your concerns about Klamath salmon.
Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr. is chairman of the Yurok Tribal Council.