Spawning fish vie with farmers in dispute over Klamath waters
Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle
Big, healthy chinook salmon are all but leaping into fishing boats this summer off the California coast, but the wriggling hordes could be in for trouble when they start heading up the rivers on their annual egg-laying runs.
There may not be enough cold water in the state’s waterways to keep the huge numbers of soon-to-be spawning fish alive, according to government regulators and fishery biologists.
The problem is that the shortage of rain and snow over the past two winters has left many of the state’s reservoirs, rivers and tributaries very low. River conditions are expected to reach a low point in August and September, just as one of the decade’s largest fall runs of salmon begins.
The issue has become a crisis on the 255-mile Klamath River, where government regulators are confronted with a troubling choice between saving fish or satisfying farmers. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, fearing a situation like 2002, when tens of thousands of fish went belly up, has proposed releasing water from Trinity Dam into the Klamath starting Aug. 15. The Klamath flows from Oregon into far Northern California and into the Pacific Ocean at Requa (Del Norte County).
The San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, representing agricultural interests in the Central Valley who rely on the Klamath water, has threatened to sue the bureau if it goes through with the plan.
“We have a very dry year and we’ve got a very large expected salmon run coming in this year,” said Pete Lucero, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation. “We want to make sure those fish that return from the ocean can make it up to their spawning grounds so they can keep future runs populated.”
The plan – outlined in a draft environmental assessment that is open for public comment until the end of the month – is to release 62,000 acre-feet of cold Trinity River water into the Klamath between Aug. 15 and Sept. 21. An acre-foot is enough to cover an acre of land in a foot of water – about 326,000 gallons.
The 165-mile Trinity River is the Klamath’s main tributary. It is blocked by the Trinity and Lewiston dams, which can release water directly into the Klamath. The problem is that a good portion of that water is also piped through what is known as the Clear Creek Tunnel into the Keswick Reservoir, near Redding, where it is sent down the Sacramento River for use by farmers in the Central Valley.
The San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority has given a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Bureau of Reclamation if water for Central Valley farmers is used for Klamath fish.
A letter sent by a coalition of power and water utility companies claims that the bureau does not have the legal authority to release extra water. As it is, the letter states, regulatory actions have resulted “in severely reduced water allocations, lost power generation opportunities and struggles to meet operational and environmental requirements.”
It’s a dilemma that could have dire consequences. Experts say the conditions are very similar to 2002. Agricultural interests at that time opposed releases for the fish and ultimately won an injunction. Between 33,000 and 65,000 salmon ultimately died in the river before they could lay eggs, a catastrophe that depleted future generations, according to fishery experts.
An estimated 272,000 salmon are expected to swim up the Klamath to lay eggs this fall, about 100,000 more spawning fish than crowded into the river system in 2002, according to Peter Dygert, a fishery biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service salmon management division. He said the fish benefited from wet winters and a healthy ocean ecosystem as they grew up.
“There are a lot of fish out there,” Dygert said. “It’s always a problem when a lot of fish are coming back and the water is low and hot.”
Tom Stokely, a water policy analyst for the California Water Impact Network, believes that halting the water releases could lead to another die-off. That, he said, would be a real shame given how well salmon stocks have recovered since record low returns in 2008 and 2009 forced a two-year fishing ban in California.
Harm from fish kill
A fish kill would harm agricultural interests even more than water releases, he and others say, because it would probably lead to future restrictions on water use as regulators try to help the fish recover.
“The bottom line is that in 2002, when there was a fish kill, scientists concluded there wasn’t enough water, it was too warm, and the fish got crowded into pools and then disease spread,” Stokely said. “What they could have done in 2002 and what they should do this year is release extra water.”
Fatal to birds
It wasn’t the only time wildlife has suffered as a result of a water deficit on the Klamath. Some 20,000 migrating birds dropped dead from avian cholera in 2012 in the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Experts said the birds died because a lack of rain during peak migration and water delivery obligations by the Bureau of Reclamation left sensitive wetlands along the Pacific Flyway dry.
There is precedent for water releases. They have been done in 2003 and 2004 in an attempt to avoid another fish kill and again last year, when about 40,000-acre-feet of water was released from the Trinity, fishery biologists said. The water authority complains that the farmers were never reimbursed for that water, which they contend came out of their allotment.
The Klamath, a federally protected wild and scenic river, is the third-largest source of salmon in the lower 48 states behind the Columbia and Sacramento rivers, where low water is also a problem this year.