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Klamath chinook suffer massive die-off

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ARCATA, Calif. ? Looking at the thick green foliage that borders the lower 45 miles of the Klamath River, one would think that this would be a place that would never want for water, even during dry years. However, after over 10,000 chinook salmon have been found dead, local tribes and federal biologists are saying a lack of water is what's killing them.

Though areas further to the south, such as the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, have seen normal rainfall this past year, a persistent drought has plagued the far northern reaches of California and southern Oregon. The drought has stressed the resources of the entire Klamath watershed and fingers are being pointed.

Less water, and an unusually hot summer, has combined to raise the temperatures of the Klamath and when combined with an unusually heavy chinook salmon run a recipe for disaster is in the works.

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say that one symptom of that disaster is the forced heavy concentration of the chinooks in limited cool water deep pools and the increased transmission of water-borne diseases, which become more prominent when water temperatures rise, resulting in the massive die off.

"It's our worst nightmare come true," says Sue Masten, a former president of National Congress of the American Indian and current chairwoman of the Yurok tribe, who has stewardship over 80 percent of the tribal allotment for salmon on the lower Klamath.

Yurok tribal biologist Dave Hillemeier said that the full scope of the disaster will not be known until December, when the current chinook run will be finished and biologists are able to provide a full count on the run.

However, Hillemeier reports that an average run for chinooks is somewhere in the neighborhood of 35,000 fish, including both wild and hatchery raised fish. This year, according to both Hillemeier and U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials looks to be a particularly heavy run.

The Yuroks, along with environmental and fishing interests, also blame the problem on poor decisions made by the Bush administration last spring.

A pitched battle in the Klamath watershed was fought last year between farmers and Indian tribes further to the east, on the Upper Klamath, where the river goes through a much drier climate. Reports of racist attacks and incidents directed at tribal members in that area were widespread after the tribes in that region asked for more water to save an endangered species of sucker fish.

The Bush administration has mainly sided with the farmers and allowed 78,000-acre-feet of water to be released into a canal that goes largely to farmland, a move the Yuroks say helped deplete the water supply downstream, creating the current catastrophic conditions.

Though federal officials have not said they are reversing the decision, Dave Savo, the Klamath area manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that controls the water flow on the river, reports that his agency is releasing water from Upper Klamath Lake ? essentially a dammed up section of the river ? to increase flow on the lower sections of the river.

"We are releasing 1,300 cubic feet per second on Upper Klamath Lake, where the inflow is only 650 feet per second," said Savo.

Savo goes on to say that the flow on the Klamath is "pretty normal" for a dry year.

However, biologist Hillemeier counters that the Bureau of Reclamation adopted a 10-year operations plan earlier this year and that after initial review, he claims the Yurok tribe objected to the projected flow and predicted that the limited water in the plan would ultimately spell disaster for fish runs.

"Now, just four months into the ten-year operations plan, we already have a disaster of a pretty severe magnitude," said Hillemeier.

Pat Foulk, who works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in external affairs, concedes that low water flow has created the disastrous conditions, she says that it is more than just the water given to the farmers last summer that have created the situation.

"The Klamath ecosystem has been over stressed for the past half century," says Foulk. Over time conditions created from competing uses of the (Klamath) river have resulted in this massive fish kill. This is an example of an overused ecosystem."

Both Foulk and Hillemeier say that there are many culprits in overstressing this ecosystem. Water is also diverted from other areas in the Klamath watershed including one of its largest tributaries, the Trinity River.

A fair majority of the Trinity River's flow is diverted to flow into the Sacramento River system where it is used to irrigate crops in the Central Valley and used by such regional urban power utilities as the Sacramento Metropolitan Utility District.

Last week, a coalition of fishing and environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Oakland claiming that the Bush administration has given away too much water. Though the Yuroks have yet to take action, Masten reports that her tribe will be joining the lawsuit shortly, possibly later this week.

Masten is also on her way to Washington D.C. to speak with congressional representatives in an attempt to sway them to create legislation that will increase flow on the Lower Klamath River.