When the Yurok Tribe's fisheries biologists identified causes that contributed to the 2002 Klamath River Fish Kill, in which upward of 50,000 salmon perished, the conclusion was matter-of-fact: "In this instance, low flow from Iron Gate Dam was a substantial causative factor ... It is also the only factor that is controllable by human action." Within the quietness of that second sentence lies a reminder of the role the federal government plays. And with this year's conditions even more dire than those 13 years ago, the Klamath's fish are even more dependent on human action to prevent another catastrophic die-off.
But the root of the problem — that only so much water exists and not enough to satisfy both farmers and fish — only grows more complicated as California's drought worsens. Water has always equaled riches in one form or another in the Golden State. The diversion of Klamath River water to irrigate crops has long been seen by North Coast tribes, fishermen and the general community as a sort of theft, a transfer of wealth in which other areas come away with power and growth, while we're left with what? Dead fish. Add cultural and psychological damage to the economic pain, and no wonder few issues incur such passion.
California's water laws are anything but straightforward (see "Water's For Fighting," Sept. 13, 2013), but the concept of first-arrived, first-served — "prior appropriation" — determines much of why who gets what. One notable exception exists: The indigenous population, whose river rights have been hard-earned, had a notable victory in 1993, when the solicitor of the Department of Interior stated that the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes have the "right to harvest quantities of fish on their reservation sufficient to support a moderate standard of living."
This offers scant comfort to the tribes if there isn't enough water, leaving the river too warm and otherwise unable to support the salmon that are central to their sustenance. "The current conditions on the Klamath are largely man-made, completely unacceptable and with responsible river management, utterly avoidable," Yurok Tribe Vice Chairperson Susan Masten said. "For Yurok people, it is excruciatingly painful to see the life of our river fade in front of our eyes." In a press release, Hoopa Tribal Chairman Ryan Jackson said "Another fish kill on the Klamath River would be devastating to North Coast communities, especially when Interior can still make the right choice ... Why are our people reduced to hauling dead fish from our river, instead of working with our trustees to prevent the disease that [U.S. Department of Interior's] Bureau of Reclamation's operations cause?"
Here is where we are now: In Blue Creek, about 1,000 adult Chinook and steelhead have become trapped in the refugia, about 15 miles north of the Klamath River mouth. The creek's water runs an average of about 10 degrees cooler than the main stem of the Klamath and is one of the only places offering the cool water the fish need, as the Klamath's water temperature has risen to intolerable levels elsewhere. Scientists have found significant levels of the parasite Ichthyopthirius multifilis (commonly known as "ich") in the Chinook salmon huddled together in this aquatic traffic jam. Ich attaches to a fish's gills and causes them to swell, which ultimately suffocates the fish. Warm water and overcrowding create prime conditions for ich to thrive and spread.
The primary cause of 2002's devastating kill, ich was seen again in 2003, disappeared, then returned last year — triggering an ultimately successful outcry from tribes and activists demanding more water be released into the Trinity. In response to this year's increased risk factors of low flows, high water temperatures, last year's detection of ich and relatively large numbers of adult salmonids holding at Blue Creek, the Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program began its monitoring for ich in early July.
Yurok Senior Fisheries Biologist Michael Belchik explained that not much is known about ich. "There was none detected for 11 years and then in 2014, it just shows back up," he said. "It's alarming — [the spread of the disease] goes from zero to 100 so fast, and that's what's causing us to worry right now." Aquariums and hatcheries encounter ich regularly, as fish within those confines are often in warmer water and denser conditions, and treat it most commonly with salt or formaldehyde, neither of which are viable for river treatment. The only immediate, albeit temporary, solution is to increase flow, Belchik said. Without the release of cooler water allowing the fish to spread out, he continued, the situation "could get really bad ... Some possibilities are catastrophic."
Meanwhile, in less than a month, a predicted fall run of about 120,000 Chinook salmon will show up at the Klamath River mouth, driven to return upstream where they will be doubly hit by abysmal water quality and the risk of being contaminated by the sick fish already there. The flow rate on the lower Klamath is expected to continue slowing, biologist Joshua Strange said in a statement released by the Hoopa Valley Tribe. The anticipated flow of 2,000 cubic-feet-per second is extremely low, less than most of California's driest years on record, and matches what occurred during the 2002 ich outbreak.
The Hoopa Valley Tribe — with backing from the Yurok Tribe — has requested the Bureau of Reclamation release 63,000 acre-feet from Lewiston Dam in Trinity County from Aug. 18 through the third week of September, according to Belchik. Huffman has asked Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to work closely with the tribes and county on a plan to release additional water, calling on the Bureau of Reclamation to "prevent a repeat of the tragic 2002 salmon run disaster."
"The Bureau has a short-term plan this year, and is working on a long-term Environmental Impact Statement deciding what will be done, under what conditions they will release water (taking) into account cold pool management and impacts to the Central Valley — it's a complex thing," he said. "The Yurok tribe is engaged very actively. It's an economic, cultural and psychological issue."
As Masten put it, "The Klamath means everything to Yurok people. Our entire way of life is connected to the river." In addition to the diseased salmon, Masten noted that Pacific giant salamanders are perishing on the main stem of the Klamath and in several tributaries. "The river has not yet reached peak temperature and toxic, blue-green algae has already been detected in the estuary," she said, "but there is a slight hint of hope on the horizon. We are confident that our fellow co-managers within the federal government will do the right thing and release cold water when the fall run arrives, which is when fish need it most. It may not be enough, but at this point it's our only option."
One piece of good news for the North Coast arrived last Christmas Eve when, at the urging of Congressman Jared Huffman, the federal government acknowledged Humboldt County's right to an annual 50,000 acre-feet of water it was promised back when the Trinity River was dammed, in addition to other North Coast rights to Trinity River water. Ultimately, however, for fish to thrive in the Klamath, four hydroelectric dams owned by Pacificorp need to come out. Dam removal would open up 420 miles of habitat, restore clean water where algae and sediment have settled for decades — one fisherman likened it to finally flushing a toilet after years of use — and hopefully increase salmon runs to pre-dam days.
This was the thrust of the then-historic Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. The New York Times wrote in 2010 that the agreement ended "decades of fighting between fishermen, farmers, environmental and Native American groups over water and fishing rights." Then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar noted, "The Klamath River, which for years was synonymous with controversy, is now a stunning example of how cooperation and partnership can resolve difficult conflicts."
Meanwhile, five years later, the legislation is, if not dead, moving as slowly as the salmon trapped in Blue Creek. Part of the problem is the degree of complexity given the number of stakeholders and agencies involved; the agreement's delicate balance depends on all the pieces staying in place. The intertwined futures of the Klamath, the fish compelled to fight upstream and the people who depend on nature's links remaining intact hang on the legislation passing by the end of this year. If that doesn't happen, the notion that history was made will fall by the wayside. And the life of the Klamath River may very well continue to fade in front of our eyes.
Jennifer Savage is a local freelance journalist and the Northcoast Environmental Center's Coastal Programs director. The NEC's involvement with the Klamath River and related dam issues predates her employment and lies outside the scope of her work.