Commercial fishermen, Native Americans, and conservationists today welcomed the release of a long-awaited report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the causes of the 2002 Klamath River fish kill. The report concluded that low river flows were at the heart of the tragic fish kill, in which over 34,000 adult salmon perished before they could spawn. The report found that:
Results of our cluster analysis of discharges in the basin indicated that 2002 featured an unique combination of low discharges (especially from Iron Gate Dam) and high run size. … Low discharge also would have resulted in lower river volume, lower water velocities, and consequently a lower exchange/turnover rate for water in the deep pools of the lower river where salmon were holding.
The FWS report also debunks the idea that flows from the Trinity River, a major Klamath tributary, were more important than those from the upper Klamath Basin. The report found that at the time of the fish kill, the Trinity River was flowing at 96% of its historical average, while flows being released from Iron Gate Dam were 41% below normal. Irrigation diversions from the Klamath Irrigation Project and elsewhere in the upper basin determine how much water is available for release from Iron Gate.
“The Administration was warned by California Fish and Game biologists, by the Tribes’ biologists, and by commercial fishermen that flows that low would lead to disaster, and so they did,” said Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), which represents families that depend on commercial salmon fishing. “This is just a post mortem, but it confirms what we were telling the Bush Administration all along. You cannot expect fish to survive in a warm water trickle of what was once a mighty river.”
“Flow is the factor identified by FWS that we can do something about,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice. “The Bush Administration must take this report to heart and leave more water in the river for fish next year. Any other reaction will be irresponsible.”
Troy Fletcher of the Yurok tribe, whose members depend on Klamath salmon, drew attention to the lingering effects of the fish kill. “We’ve been scarred by that fish kill, and it’s something our people are never going to forget.” At the same time, he said, the Yuroks stand ready and willing to work collaboratively with other groups to ensure this never happens again.
The FWS report on the Klamath fish kill arrives months behind schedule, and amid allegations that its release was delayed by Bush Administration officials. In information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Oregonian newspaper found that the report has been complete for months. This delay prevented the National Research Council from considering the FWS’s findings on the fish kill in their 400-page report on the environmental problems facing the Klamath Basin.
The delay of the FWS fish kill report release is the latest controversy over how the Bush Administration has handled scientific and economic studies that run counter to their policy goals. In 2002, The Wall Street Journal alleged that the Administration had suppressed a major economic analysis by the US Geological Survey that found Klamath River fisheries were eight times as valuable as the Klamath Irrigation Project. Also in 2002, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service filed a “whistle-blower” action, alleging that political pressure had forced the agency to sign off the river flows that led to the Klamath fish kill. In 2003, The Wall Street Journal broke another story detailing White House political advisor Karl Rove’s intervention in Klamath decision making. Allegations of political misconduct by Rove and others are now under investigation by the Inspector General’s office of the US Department of Interior.
“It is time for the Bush Administration to stop playing politics with the fish, wildlife, and people of the Klamath Basin,” said Steve Pedery of WaterWatch. “We have simply promised too much water to too many different interests, and we have got to bring the demand for this precious resource back into balance with supply. The Administration needs to get behind a program to buy back water rights and retire them, so that all of the communities that depend on the river can get their fair share.”