Amidst what may be the largest recorded fish kill in the Pacific Northwest, Earthjustice joined Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA), tribes, and other fishing and environmental groups today to demand that Interior Secretary Gail Norton and the Bush administration change their 10-year plan for managing water in the Klamath Basin. Unbalanced water distribution that gave irrigation precedence over all other uses left the lower Klamath salmon population with too little water this year to survive. To highlight the current crisis, the groups brought 500 pounds of dead salmon from the lower Klamath River to the Department of Interior to show how the administration’s plan is failing to protect the commercially valuable salmon runs and federally threatened coho salmon.
“According to the Bush administration, fish don’t need water,” said Susan Holmes, legislative representative for Earthjustice. “Apparently these salmon didn’t get the message.”
The government’s own biologists have blamed low river flows and high water temperatures for this massive fish kill. California’s Department of Fish and Game, which opposes the Bush administration’s 10-year plan, referred to Interior’s current strategy to increase flows over the next two weeks as too little, too late. The Department fears the increased flows may entice the salmon to swim upstream where they will be stranded when the Bureau of Reclamation reduces flows again.
Earthjustice filed a lawsuit last week challenging the 10-year plan on behalf of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, The Wilderness Society, WaterWatch of Oregon, Northcoast Environmental Center, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Klamath Forest Alliance, Headwaters, and Congressman Mike Thompson.
“We are pleased Congressman Thompson has joined the case, highlighting the severity of the situation for his constituents. The decreased river flows not only jeopardize the survival of the federally threatened coho salmon, but also harm the economies and livelihoods of commercial fishermen, the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa tribes, and tourism and outdoor businesses,” said Holmes.
As water was diverted to irrigation over the last decade, Klamath fisheries industries lost an estimated 4,000 family wage jobs and $80 million each year from declining fish populations. This year’s fish kill could be devastating to these important local economies as very few offspring will hatch and survive to support a future healthy fish population.
Earthjustice and the plaintiffs advocate that the federal government develop a long-term solution that allocates adequate river flows for the survival and recovery of the salmon. A scientific report (known as the Hardy and Addley Phase II Study) — prepared for the Department of Interior with technical input from federal, state, and tribal scientists — specifically addresses the river needs of the lower Klamath ecosystem and calls for increased flows. Earthjustice believes the Bush administration has ignored the study in its zeal to serve the interests of a few vocal upstream irrigators. According to Holmes, there is a need for a massive wetland restoration plan to improve badly degraded water quality and maintain consistent water levels for wildlife. The plaintiffs also believe the government should encourage the purchase of land from willing sellers to reduce water demand.