Water for salmon: A lot is at stake in legal case

By Adam Spencer, The Triplicate August 21, 2013 11:31 am

A Fresno federal judge will decide this week whether or not a lawsuit filed by Central Valley irrigators will block a large release of water from a Trinity River reservoir, intended to prevent a repeat of the 2002 fish kill in the lower Klamath River.

On Wednesday, Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill will start hearing arguments for and against the water release from Indian tribes, commercial fishermen and Central Valley irrigators.

“It’s getting close to the danger line and about the longest we can wait (for the release) is this Friday; after that, the salmon are going to start coming in large numbers,” said Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the largest trade organization of commercial fishermen on the West Coast. The association will present its arguments this week as defending intervenors in the suit.

 

Fisheries biologists say conditions are ripe for a repeat of the 2002 event, where 78,000 salmon died in low, warm water conditions in the lower Klamath River, according to state reports.

State and federal fishery biologists are predicting that this year the Klamath basin will have the second-largest return of fall chinook salmon since 1978 — at least 100,000 more salmon than the return in 2002.

“The possibly (of a fish kill) is greater without that extra flow,” said Wade Sinnen, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The projections of a large run of chinook salmon combined with the low water of a drought year prompted the Bureau of Reclamation to schedule extra flows to the Klamath and Trinity rivers using up to 62,000 acre-feet of water from the Trinity Reservoir (one acre-foot could cover one acre with one foot of water).

The release of water was scheduled to begin Aug. 13, but on that same day Judge O’Neill issued a temporary restraining order blocking the release. The order was sought by San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and Westlands Water District, who argue that the releases are illegal and would further decrease the little water available to them for irrigation.  

Roughly 600 farmers own land in Westlands Water District, growing over 60 crops, from fruits and vegetables to nuts, at a value of $1.6 billion.

The economic argument that can be made by tribes and commercial fishermen is also nothing to shrug at: up to $200 million in revenue was lost by the West Coast commercial salmon industry from season closures in 2005 to 2007 that resulted from the 2002 fish kill, according to Spain.  Based on poor Klamath salmon returns, the federal government declared the salmon industry a federal disaster in 2006 and allocated $60.4 million to comercial salmon fishermen in Oregon and California.

"Del Norte County suffered among the worse in the 2006 fishery closure," Spain said. 

Fishermen with the Yurok Tribe, which has the largest and one of the only allocations and rights to commercially fish for salmon in-river in California, made almost $3 million in last year’s commercial harvest alone.

On Monday, Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe,  was looking out over the Klamath estuary where Yurok commercial fishermen have lined up their nets since Aug. 10 to catch chinook salmon. The catch so far has been pretty slow, he said, but almost like clockwork, salmon start rushing into the river in the last week of August, meaning time is running out to get the needed water.

“The risk to fish increases over time,” Fletcher said. “We of course care about the health of the Klamath River and our fishery, and we’re going to do everything we can to protect our fish runs and the health of the river.”

As defending intervenors in the lawsuit, the Yurok Tribe will present arguments in Fresno starting Wednesday in favor of the release.

The Hoopa Valley Tribe will also present to the court as defending intervenors.

Fletcher noted that much of the scientific information that the federal government relied on to justify a release of Trinity water was based on studies done by the Yurok Tribe.

Those studies found that a flow of at least 2,500 cubic feet per second in the lower Klamath is required to avoid a fish kill — 2,800 cfs when there is a large project run, like this year.

Those flows are estimated to be sufficient for flushing out pathogens that can cause a fish kill.

What actually killed the majority of salmon in 2002, according to pathological reports, was freshwater white spot disease, (Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, also commonly known as simply Ich)  and columnaris (Flavobacterium columnare).

Ich and columnaris are actually  “ubiquitous pathogens” in the Klamath River, Sinnen of state Fish and Wildlife said, but Ich has not been observed in river-wide fish sampling thus far this year.  Columnaris has been observed on fish, however, it appears that has been at the normal background levels and only a few dead adults have been observed in various areas throughout the basin, Sinnen said.

“It’s out there, just waiting for the right opportunity,” Sinnen said, adding that ich and columnaris multiply much quicker in high water temperatures.

In 2002, salmon were crowded in the river’s cold pools, probably to avoid the warmer water in the river. The crowding helped Ich transmit much quicker from fish to fish, Sinnen said.

Some fisheries biologists have suggested that a big release of water from Trinity dams could trick salmon into making their run for spawning grounds high in the basin earlier than usual, leaving them stranded when Trinity flows drop back down after the release. Salmon might also encounter water quality issues in the Klamath River above Weitchpec, near the confluence with the Trinity. That stretch is also low and warm, but not scheduled to receive more water.

Sinnen said that these theories don’t mesh with what was seen during previous large dam releases from the Trinity, including last year. Chinook salmon still arrived within historical ranges in other fall flow release years.

if Judge O’Neill rules in favor of fish, Spain said the Bureau of Reclamation could start the release within an hour of the ruling.

In the 16,000-square-mile Klamath River Basin, consensus is not common, but Fletcher noted that many interests agree on the need for the Trinity water release.

In court briefings, the Bureau of Reclamation said: 

“Granting an injunction would result in immediate and irreparable injury to the public’s interest, including a significant risk of harm to fall-run salmon in the Klamath and Trinity River and, of special concern, the frustration of the government’s trust responsibility to the Hoopa Valley and Yurok Tribes to restore their fisheries.”

Del Norte County Supervisor David Finigan, whose district includes the lower Klamath River, said he has long supported using Trinity Water to augment Klamath flows and further supports a “system-wide fix” to the Klamath Basin’s water woes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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