Though it happened a decade ago, no one living near the Klamath River will ever forget the massive fish kill that wiped out at least 60,000 salmon trying to swim up the river to spawn.
What happened that summer was the largest known fish kill in the West, caused by disease resulting from a combination of shallow water and warm temperatures that were caused by low river flows. In fact, the Bush administration indirectly caused this fish kill, by ordering increased water diversions to help farmers irrigate their fields.
This year, as we celebrate the first good run of salmon since 2002, let us remember that unprecedented fish kill and what followed it: years of advocacy that led to some real progress toward restoring our rivers to better health. Klamath River Tribes, other community members, and coastal fishermen not only mourned the Klamath tragedy that left miles of riverbanks covered with bloated, rotting fish, but also began to fight harder for the salmon and the way of life and jobs they support.
The Klamath River runs 263 miles through southern Oregon and Northern California, cutting through the Cascade Range to the Pacific Ocean.
Six hydroelectric dams, owned by Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp, block its heavily diverted flow. But in the last decade we have seen the beginning of a large-scale effort to restore the Trinity River, the Klamath’s largest tributary, to also take down four of PacifiCorp’s dams in the Klamath River. On a larger scale, we’ve been working to restore the watersheds created by the river and the cultures that depend on them.
This year, an estimated 378,000 salmon came up the Klamath River, leading to a boom for coastal fishing communities in a poor economy, plus a large allocation of fish for the struggling Klamath River Tribes. This run of adult chinook salmon was facing conditions similar to those in 2002, until the government heeded the advice of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, fishermen and scientists, and allowed more water to remain in the Trinity River to avoid another fish kill.
As we enjoy the fruits of this victory, let us remember the fish that died in 2002, and all those who have fought for the salmon. For we know there is no guarantee that we will see more years like this. We must never let down our guard. New projects, such as California Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to pipe water through tunnels to Southern California, could greatly affect the Klamath River though greater diversions from the Trinity River. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which led to this proposal, counts on water from the Trinity that is legally obligated to the Trinity River, and a local county.
The Trinity River -- the largest and cleanest watershed that enters the Klamath -- is crucial for the survival of salmon. It was not until after the 2002 fish kill that a 30-year struggle for the Trinity’s water was resolved and 48 percent of historical flows were returned to the river, greatly benefiting the Klamath Salmon. Before then, up to 90 percent of the river had been diverted to Southern California.
Humboldt County in far Northern California had long been an ally in the struggle for the Trinity’s water. It recently came out against the Bay Delta Conservation Plan because it does not account for the Trinity’s (and thus the Klamath’s) water needs or Humboldt County’s water rights, which it plans to use to benefit salmon.
It is also essential to salmon survival that Buffett’s PacifiCorp stands by its promise to take out the Klamath dams and stop stalling on a Klamath settlement. Dam relicensing, which occurs every 50 years, provides an opportunity to surrender the dams though public processes, and this could have happened years ago. Instead, removing four of the hydroelectric dams has been stalled by the introduction of unnecessary legislation that compromises both water flows for salmon and Indian water rights. There is no tool that can benefit salmon as much as Indian water and fishing rights, as they call for healthy harvestable salmon populations, not just the minimum populations allocated through the Endangered Species Act.
We who depend on salmon must not let bureaucracy and inaction stop progress toward a healthier river and healthier fish runs. We will never forget the mounds of dead fish that blanketed the shores of the Klamath River; we must keep fighting for water to flow through our rivers.
Leonard Masten is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northern California, which has 3,500 enrolled members.