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California Officials Conclude Federal Irrigation Caused Klamath Salmon Kill

Victory: Deaths in September due to low water
January 6, 2003
Oakland, CA —

Scientists from the California Department of Fish and Game say in a report released late Friday that federal water diversions from the Klamath River were the primary cause of a massive fish kill in the Klamath River last September. More than 33,000 adult salmon, including federally protected coho, died before they could spawn because of federal water diversions to upstream farmers. The lack of water in the river caused river temperatures to rise and dissolved oxygen levels to drop, creating lethal conditions for salmon. The returning fish crowded together in a few spots where cooler tributaries brought colder water into the river. Infectious bacteria and parasites swept through the schooled up fish like wildfire, killing nearly all and seriously weakening the rest. The California report states, "DFG [Department of Fish and Game] concludes that low flows and other flow related factors (e.g. fish passage and fish density) caused the 2002 fish kill on the lower Klamath River. Furthermore, of the conditions that can cause or exacerbate a fish kill, flow is the only factor that can be controlled to any degree."

"This report confirms that the Bush administration killed more than 33,000 salmon," said Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice attorney. "And the truth is the tragedy on the lower Klamath River could be repeated unless the plan for federal irrigation is overhauled."

Earthjustice is currently challenging the ten-year federal irrigation plan that caused the ecological disaster, on behalf of commercial fishermen, conservation groups, and Congressman Mike Thompson who represents northern California coastal communities that were hard hit economically by the fish kill. The irrigation plan ignores the best available science and was approved in a biological opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service only after NMFS overruled one of its own scientists who warned that the irrigation guidelines would damage the river ecosystem and the salmon fishery. The California Fish and Game department also warns more damaging fish kills are likely under the current federal plan saying, "There is a distinct potential for future fish kills considering that pathogens are always present, temperatures are normally at levels that can cause disease and, under the 2002 BO [biological opinion] flow prescription, a moderate sized run of salmon and steelhead can generate high enough fish densities in the lower Klamath River to result in a major fish kill.

"The current federal water plan ignores science, and instead relies on guess-work, wishful thinking, and voluntary measures," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations Northwest Office in Oregon. "This is the water plan that killed the fish. Why should farmers have all the water they need while coastal fishing-dependent communities and fishing families wind up with dead fish and dry rivers?"

Earthjustice attorneys called for the release of a key federal scientific study that addresses how much water to leave in the river. The study by Dr. Thomas Hardy, commissioned by the U.S. Department of the Interior, is more than a year overdue, and is being delayed because it says that salmon need more water in the river than the Bureau of Reclamation wants to release. The suppressed Hardy study is referenced in the report just released by the California Fish and Game biologists. Earthjustice has called on the Bush White House to release the Hardy study so the best information will be available to decision makers and to the courts.

"Why is the Bush administration hiding this key scientific report on the Klamath?" asked Boyles of Earthjustice. "It's simple... the report's findings don't fit with their plan, and they do not want to face the facts."

The Klamath River Basin was once the third largest salmon-producing river system in the United States. The salmon and steelhead in the Klamath Basin, even though seriously damaged by similar water problems in the past, still provide a living for commercial fishermen, sport fishing guides, native tribal members, and coastal communities from Ft. Bragg, California to southern Oregon.

 

Contacts

Kristen Boyles, Earthjustice, 206-343-7340 ex 33

John McManus, Earthjustice, 510-550-6707

Glen Spain, PCFFA, 541-521-8655

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.