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

    U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE
 

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 http://sacramento.fws.gov/.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.