Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

From staff and wire reports

A federal agency said Wednesday that it will not release extra water into the Klamath-Trinity river system to preemptively avoid the spread of disease known to kill salmon during low, warm-water conditions - like during this year's drought - causing fisheries scientists to warn of the risk of a salmon fish kill like that which occurred in 2002.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the water held in reservoirs on the Trinity River, said it will release extra water into the Klamath-Trinity system once salmon start dying from drought-related disease, but not before.

Bureau spokesman Louis Moore said from Sacramento that the decision came under terms of a 2012 emergency water plan and after consulting with tribes, irrigators and other agencies. The Yurok and Hoopa tribes, however, fought in court last summer for the need for water releases to prevent a repeat of the 2002 fish kill.

"When you look at the need and demand for water, it's for every requirement out there, whether it is drinking water, species, power, agriculture or flow in the rivers," Moore said. "The best use of that water was part of that discussion - how can we use this water and still meet all the needs that are there?"

Fisheries biologist Joshua Strange of Stillwater Sciences said that waiting until disease is detected will be too late to prevent widespread death of salmon. Strange submitted a memo to the Klamath Fish Health Advisory Team saying low flows this year could lead to a salmon kill like the one in 2002, when at least 60,000 adult salmon died in the Lower Klamath River.

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

Once Ich is detected, fish disease experts from Red Bluff must verify its presence, then the bureau must make a decision to release water. It takes four days for water to reach the Lower Klamath River once released from dams on the Trinity River.

"You're looking at four days at best between when the disease is detected and when the water would arrive," Strange told the Triplicate. "Evidence indicates that in 2002 most of those fish received a lethal dose within a three- to seven-day window."

Under the protocol chosen Wednesday by B.O.R., there would be an "unknown portion of fish that would receive a lethal dose, and that portion could be quite high," Strange said.

He says the idea of raising flows down the rivers is not to cool the water temperature, or make it easier for the fish to swim, but to make it harder for the tiny parasites, which swim with hair-like filaments along their bodies, to attack fish.

"Everything we know about Ich is that an ounce of prevention is worth 20 pounds of emergency action," Strange said. "If you can keep it from starting, your chances are way, way better. It builds up momentum very quickly."

After salmon were reported dying last week in the Salmon River, a tributary of the Klamath, salmon advocates called on the bureau to put more water down the Klamath and Trinity rivers to protect salmon.

After the bureau's decision, Del Norte County's U.S. Congressman Jared Huffman issued a statement:

"The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's decision today to withhold water releases needed to prevent a repeat of the 2002 fish kill in the Lower Klamath River is the latest example of how the federal government fails to plan for drought to the detriment of tribes, fishermen, and the environment.

"Even now, Reclamation continues to divert Trinity River water to the mismanaged Sacramento River system and has drained Trinity Reservoir so there is virtually no available water to protect salmon in the Trinity or Klamath rivers. By state law, Trinity River salmon - which begin their upstream migration in the Klamath River - must be protected before water is used to bail out the Central Valley Project. When you find yourself in a hole, you're supposed to stop digging, but Reclamation has dug itself a hole it cannot get out of, and tribes and fishermen may once again pay the price."

During the fight for Trinity water to protect salmon last summer, Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said that Del Norte County's commercial salmon industry "suffered among the worst" by the 2002 fish kill since it contributed to the close of the entire ocean salmon fishery in 2006. That year, a federal disaster was declared and $60.4 million was allocated to commercial salmon fishermen in Oregon and California.