Fish on the line

Increased flows to Klamath River may avert massive salmon die-off

Fish species such as spring-run chinook salmon (pictured) rely on cold water flows to complete their migration.

Fish species such as spring-run chinook salmon (pictured) rely on cold water flows to complete their migration.

cn&r file photo courtesy of fishbio

On March 25, 1954, about the time that California’s complex system of dams and reservoirs was first being built, the Trinity Journal ran a story on the subject. The manager of the Westlands Water District, a newly founded coalition of farmers in the desert-dry San Joaquin Valley, was quoted as promising that his region’s farmers would use only surplus water from the Trinity and Sacramento rivers if the federal government went ahead with plans to dam the watersheds and build an 11-mile tunnel connecting the Trinity River to the Central Valley.

But six decades later, with the dams and reservoirs long in place, Westlands Water District seems to have forgotten its promise. On Monday, the powerful group of farmers, along with the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, filed a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from releasing a small pulse of water from Trinity Lake reservoir into the river below in an effort to assist thousands of native salmon and steelhead.

The migrating fish had become stranded in low waters that, heated by the sun to bathtub temperatures, were liable to kill them—possibly by the tens of thousands, as happened in 2002 in the Klamath River. After outcry from local tribal groups, the bureau reluctantly agreed to increase the flows from Trinity Lake into the Trinity River, a major Klamath tributary, from about 430 cubic feet per second to more than 2,500.

The Water Authority’s executive director, Dan Nelson, said in a statement released Friday (Aug. 22) that the bureau’s actions were “wrong—both scientifically and morally.” He said the bureau had chosen to “dump precious Central Valley Project water while the people of our valley suffer from” the social and economic effects of drought.

In an interview with CN&R, Nelson said the risk of a salmon die-off in the Klamath is currently negligible and that the state of “emergency” in the Klamath has been exaggerated. When questioned, he could not name a source for this information.

But biologists and tribal groups in the Klamath basin say otherwise. Mike Belchik, senior biologist with the Yurok Tribe who has been monitoring the condition of the river and its fish, says that, until last week, the Klamath River was even lower than it was in the summer of 2002. That year as many as 70,000 salmon and steelhead died from a disease commonly called gillrot, which thrives in warm water. Belchik says salmon tend to gather near stream mouths when water in the main stem of a river becomes too warm.

“For the first time since 2002, we’ve seen salmon clustering by the thousands near river tributaries,” Belchik said.

Tom Stokely, a Mount Shasta-based water activist with the California Water Impact Network, points out the amount being released to save the Klamath’s incoming salmon run is relatively small—between 25,000 and 30,000 acre-feet from a reservoir currently containing more than 700,000 acre-feet. Stokely says the Bureau of Reclamation has diverted about a half million acre-feet of Trinity River water to the Central Valley since October.

Nelson said his district’s members—mostly farmers—want more water available from Trinity Lake for release into the Central Valley primarily to protect threatened and endangered chinook salmon in the Sacramento River.

But John McManus, with the Golden Gate Salmon Association, says these salmon have mostly spawned upstream of where Trinity basin water enters the Sacramento—meaning the diversions wouldn’t help the fish. Anyway, McManus believes one river should not be supported with water taken from another.

“The water needed to keep the Sacramento River cold enough for salmon to reproduce should be coming from Lake Shasta, not coastal rivers,” he said.

At the Butte Environmental Council, water policy advocate Carol Perkins suspects agriculture groups who say their main objective is to help salmon in the Sacramento River are being disingenuous.

“We’re not tunneling water from the Trinity to the Sacramento to help fish,” Perkins said. “The Shasta Dam system wasn’t built to save fish. It was built for Big Ag.”

In spite of the legal filing, water flows from Trinity Lake into the Trinity River remain flowing at full force, and the Klamath River salmon, according to sources, are moving upstream.