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Crisis in the Klamath Basin

Crisis in the Klamath Basin

More than 100 years ago, the federal government decided it would be wise and prudent to turn the Klamath Basin in Oregon and California into farm- and pastureland. The area had been a vast wetland draining streams flowing out of mountains to the east. It was also a vital feeding and resting place for millions of migratory birds on their annual pilgrimage north for the summer, returning south for the winter.

In addition, the mighty Klamath River and its tributaries produced salmon in profusion: only the Columbia and the Sacramento on the west coast produced more fish as measured by their value to the fishing economy. The Klamath is one of the few rivers to drain not only the coast range but the Cascade range as well, which means it was a big, mighty river with lots of water in it. In addition, the river and lake system produced vast quantities of two species of mullet, also known as the Lost River sucker and the shortnose sucker, that were a staple food of the Native Americans who live in the basin.

But all that would change dramatically as water was diverted to irrigate fields devoted to grass for livestock and raising beets, onions, potatoes, and other staples that can be grown nearly anywhere. The wetlands that were drained, and the streams that were dewatered, could not be replaced. The birds and fish that depended on the marshes and spawning beds began to disappear. Coho salmon in the rivers and mullet in the lakes were soon brought under the protective wing of the federal Endangered Species Act (1988 for suckers and 1997 for coho). And as the fish declined, so did the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen and their families and the coastal towns they hail from along a 180-mile stretch of coastline in northern California and southern Oregon, all of which relied on Klamath salmon as an economic mainstay. As coho salmon declined, so too did the more commercially valuable and numerous chinook salmon. The mullet, which once fed the Indians in the basin, had all but disappeared: the Indians now catch one fish each year for ceremonial purposes. There is another major contributor to the problem in the Klamath and that is people living around Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon, who have diverted inflows into the lake. The result is there is less water flowing through the lake into the river, regardless of the Klamath Irrigation Project, than was available 20 years ago.

In 2001, matters reached the crisis stage. In the face of a debilitating drought, a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of commercial fishermen and environmentalists prodded the Bureau of Reclamation to limit water deliveries to farmers in the basin so that downstream coho salmon had a fighting chance. The political reaction was swift and angry. People scoffed at the idea of caring more about fish than farmers. Calls were made to strip Endangered Species Act protection from the fish. Farmers opened river diversion gates and federal agents closed them again. And a formal request was put forward to empanel the Endangered Species Committee -- generally referred to as the God Squad -- which can, in extreme circumstances, allow extinction of species. The Klamath situation was serious but not that serious: the request was turned down.

The year passed with much tension. Then the Bureau of Reclamation, in the early spring of 2002, declared that there was plenty of water for all needs after a wet winter, and then proceeded to keep most of it in upstream reservoirs for summer irrigation, depriving young salmon (known as smolts) the water they need to make their escape to sea, and jeopardizing the coho and chinook fry that need hiding and feeding areas in the streamside vegetation. This sparked another lawsuit, and angry denunciations by farmers and their champions in politics, some of whom may try to seize on this opportunity to do serious damage to the Endangered Species Act and other laws.

On May 3, 2002, a federal judge in Oakland refused to order the bureau to provide water necessary for the immediate survival of young salmon because the study indicating the necessity of doing so was only a draft. Nevertheless, for reasons known only unto itself, the agency voluntarily increased flows at least temporarily, but the damage was already done. Many thousands of young salmon are believed to have perished in the river during the months of April, May and June. As the summer of 2002 wore on the flows released by the federal Bureau of Reclamation declined as more water was diverted to farmers upstream. By late July and into August returning adult salmon could be seen schooling up where cool tributaries joined the Klamath. Salmon are a cold water fish and these fish were desperate to stay cool. In late September diaster struck. The river, running at a fraction of its historic levels for September, forced returning adult salmon to crowd together tightly in pools of the coolest water which by now were too warm for salmon. The warm water depressed the ability of the salmon to stave off disease and when disease struck, it spread like wildfire killing as many as 70,000 salmon, steelhead and other fish. Tribal and state biologist knew the cause but the federal government refused to acknowledge the obvious; the water diversions had led to a massive die off of thousands of fish in the Klamath.

In late October 2002 a scientist from the National Marine Fisheries Service named Mike Kelly stepped forward to say his work in the spring of 2002 to assure adequate water levels for the health of the river had been over ridden for political purposes. Kelly said his team twice developed guidelines for how much water would be needed to assure compliance with Endangered Species Act protections for coho salmon in the Klamath and twice they were rejected by higher ups. He said the guidelines that were eventually approved by the federal government were forced on fisheries scientists by the Bureau of Reclamation, the government branch charged with giving water to farmers. Kelly's story supports the main contentions of a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice in late September 2002. That lawsuit alleges that the final government approval of the water levels needed to protect coho salmon in the river are too low and were arrived at in an illegal manner. A district court judge ruled against the request for greater river flows and that ruling is under appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the spring of 2005 the true dimension of what occured in the spring of 2002 became clear. Scientists reported a shortage of Klamath River chinook salmon born in 2002 and fisheries managers warned commercial fishermen to expect greatly curtailed fishing seasons in order to protect the low number of Klamath chinook.

To explain why the litigation is absolutely necessary, and to help explore solutions to a very difficult problem, we have assembled the resources you now have at your fingertips. We hope you find this information useful and we welcome your comments.

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Program Area:  The Wild Healthy Communities
Office:  Northwest
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