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The mouth of the Klamath River.

The mouth of the Klamath River. (Courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)

Questions & Answers about the 2017 Klamath River Ruling

Yurok Tribe, PCFFA, Klamath Riverkeeper, Hoopa Valley Tribe v. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Nos. 16-6863-WHO & 16-4294-WHO (N.D. Cal. Feb. 8, 2017)

Questions & Answers about the 2017 Klamath River Ruling

Yurok Tribe, PCFFA, Klamath Riverkeeper, Hoopa Valley Tribe v. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Nos. 16-6863-WHO & 16-4294-WHO (N.D. Cal. Feb. 8, 2017)

Courtesy of the Yurok Tribe
The mouth of the Klamath River.
Update: February 10, 2017, 12:00PM PT

Federal Agencies Comply With Court Order.

Water release from Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River has begun. Starting Feb. 10 through Feb. 13, flows below Iron Gate Dam will be elevated, increasing from approximately 4,000 cubic feet per second to as much as 9,600 cfs. Read the Bureau of Reclamation's news release for more details.
Update: February 8, 2017, 10:30AM PT

Federal Court Protects Klamath Salmon, Tribal and Fishing Communities.

U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick has ordered federal agencies to immediately take steps to protect juvenile coho salmon after several years of deadly disease outbreaks in the Klamath River. Judge Orrick found that the Bureau of Reclamation’s operation of the Klamath Project is causing irreparable harm to the salmon and the Yurok Tribe and fishing families, and that the water levels also appear favorable this year for the mitigation flows needed to reduce that harm. Read the news release.

What led the Tribes, commercial fishermen, and conservation groups to bring this lawsuit?

In 2013, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a biological opinion that allowed a new plan for water allocation in the river based on its belief that juvenile salmon infection rates from a deadly parasite known as C. shasta—the biggest threat to coho salmon survival—would decline significantly. As a check on the plan’s effectiveness, NMFS set a cap on infections at 49% of the sampled juvenile salmon, the highest infection rate previously recorded. In 2014, 81% of the sampled young Klamath salmon were infected in C. shasta; the next year, 91% of the sampled juvenile fish were infected with the deadly parasite.

Why did the Tribes and commercial fishermen seek this injunction now?

Tribal, federal, and state scientists—and now the Court—agree that the additional flows are based on the best available science, and this year has favorable weather conditions for flushing flows. Thankfully, it's been raining and snowing a lot in the Klamath River basin. The parties, including irrigators, now have time to meet to work out details without unnecessary disruptions. We brought this case early enough to allow time to plan this year's water allocation. The ruling shows how the Endangered Species Act can work to ensure balance in river management.

Why are salmon important to the Yurok Tribe?

The health of the Yurok people is directly linked to that of the Klamath River. To improve Klamath fish stocks, the Yurok Tribe employs the largest fisheries department in the basin and is intimately involved in all decisions that impact the river. In addition to doing scientific work, the Tribe is actively restoring the forests, prairies and creeks on the reservation. Salmon are the foundation of the Yurok Tribe’s traditional culture and plays a primary part in our annual and biannual ceremonies. For many Yuroks living on reservation, where there is no grocery store, the lack of salmon, a staple, has meant a struggle to put food on the table and make ends meet. The Yurok Tribal Council completely canceled the Tribe’s modest commercial fishery in 2016 in response to the record low fish runs. In the same year, the Tribe did not serve fish at the annual Klamath Salmon Festival, a first in the event’s 54-year history.
Yurok fishers Pete Thompson (left) and Bob Ray set a net in the Klamath River estuary.
Courtesy of the Yurok Tribe
Yurok fishers Pete Thompson (left) and Bob Ray set a net in the Klamath River estuary.

Why has this deadly parasite infested the Klamath River?

The Klamath River has had natural infections from C. shasta of around 10%, but water diversions and the Klamath River dams create ideal conditions for C. shasta to thrive. The C. shasta host worm lives in immobile sediments at the bottom of the river. Historically, large winter flows would scour the riverbed and clear out this detritus, but agricultural diversions dramatically reduce flows, making deep flushing flows a rarity. In addition, young salmon now congregate below the impassable Iron Gate Dam, where the parasite is passed to the fish when they are more susceptible to its adverse effects due to warmer temperatures in the slack water.

What can be done to fix the C. shasta problem?

A coalition of scientific experts from the federal agencies and the Tribes have worked together to compile the best available, peer-reviewed science and identify effective management measures. Their work echoed and reinforced NMFS 2013 conclusion that two types of flows are necessary to flush the C. shasta infestation out of the river. The first, flushing flows, occur in the late winter/early spring to scour the riverbed to clear out C. shasta host worms and disrupt their habitat. The second, emergency dilution flows, occur later in the summer to help to move C. shasta spores down and out of the river, should the infection rates spike.

Worms? Spores? What kind of organism is C. shasta?

The life cycle of Ceratanova shasta is complicated and involves salmon and a freshwater worm as alternate hosts, and two microscopic waterborne spore stages. The life cycle of C. shasta begins with an infected worm in the upper reaches of the Klamath River. Inside the worm’s body, spores of shasta C. shasta parasite develop and await warmer temperatures in the spring for release. At that time, when the river is occupied by young coho and chinook salmon, the spores infect the fish. In large enough numbers, these spores can overwhelm the juvenile fish’s immune defenses and cause massive infection. The spores migrate to the gut cavity of the fish where they perforate digestive tissue, causing bloating and eventual death.

If everyone agrees on the solution, then why did the Court have to issue an order?

While there is broad scientific agreement on what needs to be done, the Bureau of Reclamation has been unwilling to provide the flushing flows needed to cleanse the river or to reserve water and provide dilution flows if needed later in the water year. In the Klamath, it’s all about who gets the river water.

Why isn’t there enough water naturally?

The Klamath hasn’t been a natural river for decades, and too much water has been promised to too many people. The Bureau of Reclamation manages distribution of river water between agricultural irrigation, salmon in the river itself, suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, and six National Wildlife Refuges. The Endangered Species Act protects both salmon and suckers and requires that water needs for the species be met first, although in practice it is most often agriculture that receives its full allocation of water.

How have the Tribes and commercial fishermen been harmed?

Much of the juvenile salmon population hard hit by C. shasta in 2014 returned as adults in 2016. The adult salmon returns were so low, commercial and Native American fisheries were decimated and many fishing families could not provide for their basic needs. The U.S. Commerce Secretary declared the Yurok 2016 Klamath River chinook salmon fishing season a federal fishery disaster in January 2017. Under federal law, such a commercial fishery failure determination provides a basis for Congress to appropriate disaster relief funding to provide economic assistance to affected fishing communities.
A PCFFA fishing boat.
Courtesy of PCFFA
A PCFFA fishing boat.

What did the Court order?

The Court first determined that the federal agencies were in violation of the Endangered Species Act and needed to look at the entire Klamath River plan again and to recalibrate the in-river flows needed to prevent C. shasta infestations. The Court then ordered three things. First, while the agencies re-work their biological review, the Bureau of Reclamation to release a pulse of river water as a “flushing flow” in the winter or early spring to flush out the worms that harbor C. shasta; such flushing flows, which used to be commonplace in the Klamath River, have become rare over the past 16 years. Second, the Court ordered the Bureau to provide “dilution flows” later to flush out C. shasta spores if the flushing flow does not prevent a C. shasta infestation and to ensure sufficient water is available for dilution flows, if needed. Third, the Court conditioned the flows by requiring the safeguards for endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake will continue to be met and directed technical experts for the parties work together and propose the parameters of these mitigation measures by March 9, 2017. Read the court document.

Since the parasite infection spiked in 2014 and 2015, has all the damage already been done?

No; even with the Court-ordered flows, harm from past infections will continue. Coho salmon have a 2 to 3-year life cycle, so young salmon from 2014 returned or will return to the Klamath River as adults in 2016 and 2017, and so on. That’s the double-whammy of a C. shasta infestation—high infection and mortality rates now mean fewer salmon coming back as adults to spawn, further decreasing the population. The Court-ordered flows will begin to halt this decline, but it will take several years.

Hasn’t the Klamath River been struggled from a different disease issue?

Yes, unfortunately that’s true. The Klamath River was once the third most productive salmon river in the western United States, supporting Native American Tribes, including the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa Valley Tribes, and a vital commercial salmon fishery. The Klamath Irrigation Project diverts up to 350,000 acre feet of water to irrigate agricultural lands in the upper basin, which has dramatically decreased flows in the Klamath River. The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Klamath Project and must ensure standards are put in place to protect coho salmon, which were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1997, due in large part to their declines resulting from water diversions for the Klamath Project. Low flows in the Klamath River resulted in a tragic fish kill in 2002 when conservative estimates of between 33,000 and 64,000 returning adult salmon died from a different disease in the warm water of the river. Prior legal action by these same parties led to mandatory river flows that helped salmon survival, but did not address the C. shasta infestation issue.
The news started coming in on a late September Saturday in 2002. Hundreds of salmon, maybe thousands of salmon, were floating belly-up in the lower Klamath River. The first emails were tentative, as folks in northern California wrote "we think there's a fish kill going on." By Monday, no one was using the word "think." The count of dead fish was in the thousands and rising; people said you could smell the river way before you could see it—the stench of dead salmon hanging in the hot California air.

What is Endangered Species Act consultation?

After a species or population, like coho in the Klamath River, is protected under the Endangered Species Act, all federal agencies must ensure that any action they take does not harm or “jeopardize” the species. Federal agencies do this by engaging in a scientific review process called consultation, where the proposed action is analyzed or judged by the expert federal biological agency, either U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or, as here, NMFS. The outcome of consultation is embodied in a biological opinion, a legally significant document that allows an action to proceed and proscribes measures needed to protect the species.

What happened to the agreement to remove the fish-blocking dams on the Klamath River?

In April 2016, the Yurok Tribe, federal agencies, the states of California and Oregon, and dam owner PacifiCorp finalized an agreement to seek federal approval to decommission and remove the four lower Klamath River dams, including Iron Gate. Dam removal should allow water flows to flush out C. shasta spores and host worms and eliminate the conditions under which both proliferate. Measures ordered by the Court will help safeguard Klamath salmon populations in the meantime.
Erica Young, Aleaha Aguilar, Chucheesh O'Rourke, Faith Kibby (from left) shared a stage with Oregon governor Kathleen Brown and California governor Jerry Brown at a signing ceremony for the 2016 dam removal deal.
Courtesy of the Yurok Tribe
Erica Young, Aleaha Aguilar, Chucheesh O'Rourke, Faith Kibby (from left) shared a stage with Oregon governor Kathleen Brown and California governor Jerry Brown at a signing ceremony for the 2016 dam removal deal.