At a March 29 ceremony, a large part of the Klamath River was redirected by the US Bureau of Reclamation into irrigation canals on the Oregon/California border. The diversion of the river comes at a critical time for freshly hatched salmon as well as one-year-olds ready to migrate to the sea.
"Quite simply, fish gotta swim," said Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), the west coast's largest organization of commercial fishing families and the lead plaintiff in the suit. "Fishing families are having a hard time paying their bills and the government is just trying to write off the lower river and coastal economy. There is a lot more rainfall this year than during last year's drought, and all we are asking is a fair share so the lower river and its fisheries can survive."
Skirting legal requirements, the bureau devised a temporary plan for April and May 2002 that drastically reduces the amount of water in the river. The lawsuit also charges that the National Marine Fisheries Service ignored the best available science when it put its stamp of approval on the Bureau's short-term water diversion plan. That science, known as the Hardy II report, calls for significantly higher river flows in April, May, and June to protect salmon.
Fishermen point out that the bureau has been down this path before. Under court order to protect winter run king salmon in California, the bureau abandoned similar water diversion practices in the Sacramento River, and all salmon stocks enjoyed a healthy rebound.
Salmon provide an economic boost not only to commercial fishermen but also to outfitters, resorts, hotels, sport shops, fishing charter operations, and other businesses along the coast.
"There is more water available this year than last year," said Glen Spain of PCFFA's Northwest Office in Oregon. "It's mind boggling that the Bush administration would give the lower river even less water this year than during last year's drought. Fishermen deserve a fair share of water in the river just as much as farmers deserve water in the fields. It simply makes no sense to destroy thousands of coastal jobs and devastate coastal communities by artificially creating a downriver drought that does not have to exist."
April, May, and June are key months for young salmon in the Klamath River. Newly hatched salmon, called fry, need safe habitat in and around bank vegetation to hide and feed. Lower river flows force these young fish into the mainstream of the river where they are easy prey. Year-old salmon, called smolts, need adequate river flows to safely make the journey to the Pacific Ocean.
"This diversion undercuts years of work rebuilding depleted salmon stocks in the Klamath," said Duncan MacLean, a Half Moon Bay salmon fisherman who was forced to move from Crescent City because 180 miles of coastline were shut to salmon fishing to protect declining Klamath salmon stocks. "Northern California and southern Oregon fishing ports were once the most productive salmon ports in the Lower 48. Klamath water-related fisheries losses to these ports already have been estimated at 4,000 family wage jobs and $80 million a year since 1992."
In February, the National Research Council issued an interim report criticizing some of the science that led to last year's decision to reduce river diversions to Klamath Basin farmers to help salmon and lake fish survive. At the same time, the NRC panel rejected the Bureau of Reclamation's proposed 2001 operations plan as too risky. Remarkably, the Bureau has proposed the same low flows this year -- even though there is more water available now than during last year's near-record drought.
The Klamath was once the third mightiest salmon-producing river in the continental US behind only the Columbia and Sacramento. The river has been reduced to a shadow of its former self largely as a result of the Bureau of Reclamations' re-plumbing of its headwaters. The long-term answer will likely include buying back some of the agriculture land in the Klamath Basin to reduce water demand.
The fishermen's lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of PCFFA, joined by The Wilderness Society, WaterWatch of Oregon, North Coast Environmental Center, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Klamath Forest Alliance, and Institute for Fisheries Resources.