Placing blame where it belongs

Assigning “blame” seems to be popular these days in the Klamath River Basin, especially when the topic is September’s massive salmon kill. California’s Department of Fish and Game (DFG) recently published a “Preliminary Analysis” of factors contributing to the die-off of an estimated 33,000 adult salmon in the lower river. In Siskiyou County—in the Klamath River Basin’s agricultural mid-section—newspaper headlines promptly proclaimed that farmers were being blamed for the salmon deaths. Guest editorials published in Siskiyou County and in Klamath County Oregon blame environmentalists for blaming the farmers.

Let’s be clear at the outset—DFG biologists did not “blame” farmers. They did find that the third-lowest flows ever in the Klamath River combined with the third-highest salmon run in the modern era contributed significantly to the largest die-off of adult salmon ever recorded. You can read DFG’s report on line at

In its report, DFG points a finger at the federal Bureau of Reclamation because that agency continued to divert water from the Klamath and Trinity Rivers, making full deliveries to irrigation districts, in spite of one of the worst droughts on record.

DFG also used questionable calculations to assert that cutting back irrigation in the Shasta and Scott rivers could not have helped prevent the salmon die off. The state of California was defending itself. California state agencies are responsible for regulating irrigation in the Scott and Shasta, and the Bureau of Reclamation has been pointing fingers in that direction. Irrigated farms in the Shasta and Scott amount to about one-third of the acres irrigated in the federal Klamath Project. While the feds bear the greater responsibility, the Shasta and Scott are clearly not irrelevant when it comes to Klamath River flows, in spite of DFG’s new math. The state agency now admits that the figures used for the Shasta and Scott were wrong.

Where does responsibility for the largest adult salmon die-off ever recorded lie? While there is obviously plenty of blame to go around, “farmers” do not control how much water is allowed to flow from Upper Klamath Lake into the Klamath River; nor do they control flows in the Trinity River. It was Bush administration political appointees, not farmers, who ordered the Bureau of Reclamation to divert water that should have flowed in the Klamath River last year.

Anyone who doubts that 2002 Klamath River flows and the resulting salmon deaths were directed by Bush administration political appointees should read the statement of whistleblower Michael Kelley, the salmon biologist who was ordered to change his biological opinion in order to justify low Klamath River flows. The statement can be read on the web at

As long as political appointees control water decisions in the Klamath River Basin, there will be no balanced solution to the Klamath’s water problems. The people who live in the basin need to opt out of the blame game and join together to demand that federal and state officials properly manage the river under federal and state law. Working together, the people of the Klamath River Basin can forge a just solution.