Officials ask for Klamath help

October 07, 2002 11:00 pm

By Laura Brown

Triplicate staff writer

Local and congressional officials are pressing for money to pay for the cleanup of the Klamath River and to compensate people hurt by the fish-kill disaster.

Biologists are estimating that 30,000 adult chinook salmon have died in the Klamath River in recent weeks and most suspect low river flows and high water temperatures, compounded by a large fish run, caused the spread of a bacterial infection.

Early last week the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency for the lower Klamath River community. A similar request has been made by Congressman Mike Thompson to the Department of Commerce and the Department of Interior.

Thompson, in a letter to Secretary Donald Evans of the Department of Commerce, asked to allocate $1 million each to Del Norte and Humboldt counties to offset the economic loss of the in-river sport fishery.

An additional $1 million is being sought to compensate the Yurok Tribe's economic loss. Another $500,000 is requested to pay the Yurok Tribe to finance cleanup costs of the fish-strewn beaches.

In Thompson's letters dated Oct. 3, he noted that "more than 20 fishing guides along the lower Klamath have lost all their business in the last week alone." He also cited businesses connected with the sport fishing industry, such as restaurants and hotels.

"What a lot of people don't realize is the amount of hoops to jump it takes just to get a dime," said Supervisor David Finigan. Trying to track who is responsible for the dead fish has lead to many hours of "burning the phone lines" by supervisors Finigan and Chuck Blackburn. They say nobody is willing to take the heat for this one.

Del Norte county's history of emergency declarations, such as during the long closure of Highway 199 last year and the Biscuit Fire this summer, has brought less than desirable compensation. "The real hard thing that business people are not going to like is it's really hard to access funds," said Finigan.

As in the past, low-interest loans were offered to get people back on their feet rather than individual reimbursements. Finigan said what often happens is the people affected don't have the money to pay back the loans.

The emergency declaration is currently being drafted and will be delivered to all affected state and federal agencies by the next board meeting. It will provide for economic, environmental, tribal fishery and business needs.

Some of the agencies include the Bureau of Reclamation, responsible for downriver water releases, National Marine Fisheries Service, responsible for setting the river levels best suited for fish survival and the state Department of Fish and Game and California representatives, including U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson and state Sen. Wesley Chesbro.

The immediate concern of county officials is for the cleanup of the two-week-old dead fish decomposing along the lower 30 miles of the river. Last weekend a handful of volunteers gathered some of the debris and hauled it off with a truck donated by Hambro Forest Products. The fish debris was later composted with sawdust and woodchips. Because of the rocks mixed in with the fish, it could not be processed into fertilizer.

Increased water releases being delivered downstream this week have also helped clean the river system but there is still more work to do.

Since the fish-kill there have been numerous phone calls from citizens voicing their concerns, including an appearance by a Klamath RV park owner who showed up at a supervisors' meeting with a five-gallon bucket of rotten fish. Finigan says that it is normal for people to want to vent their frustrations during a crisis, but blaming the board for the dead salmon is unproductive.

"What we really need to do is be solution-oriented; and if you're pointing fingers, you're just wasting precious time," Finigan said.

Finigan said there is no money in the county coffers to help the Klamath community with recent economic blows, but that doesn't mean county officials are sitting idle.

"The water was released. We certainly had a role in that," Finigan said.

Finigan and Blackburn will meet with 28 Northern California counties this week in Sacramento with the lower Klamath's water issues a prime topic of discussion. With the water releases behind them, supervisors are now rigourously working behind the scenes to negotiate a settlement between all players including tribal, fishery agencies and farming interests.

Denver Nelson, a lobbyist for higher Trinity River flows will make a presentation during the Board of Supervisor's meeting today at 10 a.m.