News flash: Fish do need water

Federal wildlife managers admit that a massive fish kill was caused, in part, by diversions of water to farmers

  • Klamath River


PORTLAND, OREGON — More than a year after some 34,000 salmon and other fish went belly-up in the Klamath River, the federal government has acknowledged that its diversions of water to Klamath Basin farms were partly responsible (HCN, 6/23/03: Sound science goes sour).

In a report released in mid-November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service admits what others have contended since September 2002, when the Klamath was the site of the largest adult fish die-off in U.S. history: Low river levels doomed a large run of migrating fish, which succumbed to disease in warm, stagnant water.

The report singles out depleted flows from the Upper Klamath Basin on the Oregon-California border as a cause. The Bush administration had withheld some water from farms in 2001, in an attempt to help fish. But in 2002, the year of the die-off, the administration gave the farmers a full allocation of water.

The report underscores the competing water demands of protected wildlife and broad-scale agriculture. It is likely to add ammunition to arguments by American Indian tribes and environmental groups that more water should be shifted from farmers to fish.

"Saying otherwise is like saying there’s no connection between cigarettes and lung cancer," says Steve Pedery of WaterWatch of Oregon. "It’s cause and effect."

The California Department of Fish and Game released a report reaching similar conclusions four months after the die-off. Documents obtained by The Oregonian through the Freedom of Information Act show that federal scientists had largely reached that same conclusion more than six months ago. But they were prevented from releasing their findings pending review by Bush administration officials.

"What we didn’t want to do was rush to judgment," says Sue Ellen Wooldridge, deputy chief of staff to Interior Secretary Gale Norton. She says Bush officials never doubted that more water might have aided fish crowded into the shrunken river. Norton freed extra water as the die-off mounted, in hopes of slowing the death toll.

"I don’t think it’s ever really been a question that the stacking problem (of fish) in the river might have been ameliorated by more water," Wooldridge says.

The 2002 salmon migration was the eighth largest on record and peaked one to two weeks early. That packed thousands of fish into the lower reaches of the depleted river. But flows were not sufficient to lead the fish upstream where they could spread out.

Warm — but not unprecedented — water temperatures may have combined with the crowded conditions to put the fish under extra stress. That and the slow-moving water created ideal conditions for disease, which erupted in epidemic proportions and left rafts of carcasses on the river and its shores.

In an accompanying report, Fish and Wildlife estimates the death toll at 34,056 fish. But it says the figure was conservative, and the total number of dead fish was probably higher. About 98 percent of the dead fish were salmon. Of those, 98 percent were chinook, and 1 percent were threatened coho salmon. A green sturgeon was also found dead.

While the new report fingers farms in the Klamath Project for leaving too little water for fish, Wooldridge says there’s enough blame to go around. There would be more water in the Klamath in the first place if the massive Trinity River in Northern California — which feeds into the Klamath — were not diverted to California’s Central Valley.

"Solutions have got to be broader than just pointing the finger at one part of the basin," Wooldridge says. "Everyone can contribute. They can either make it worse or make it better."

At the moment, the Trinity is tied up in a lawsuit. But the administration won special permission earlier this year to direct more water down the Trinity into the Klamath to avert another die-off. Salmon in the river remained healthy this year, although thousands of young fish died in a hatchery on the Klamath when water was accidentally turned off.

Michael Milstein reports for The Oregonian in Portland.

The Klamath River Fish Die-Off Reports can be viewed at

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