Death in the Klamath

Last summer, it was the farmers at the upper end of the Klamath River basin of Oregon and California who made news. Upset that the subsidized water to which their farms had become accustomed was cut back due to drought and protections for four threatened or endangered fish, they stormed the headgates and turned the water on themselves. The farmers" action made national headlines, and in the end they received roughly 75 percent of the water they’d expect in a normal water year.

This year, it’s the salmon downriver that are making headlines. But while the farmers ended up with most of what they wanted, the salmon haven’t had a happy ending. For three weeks beginning in September, fish returning to the Klamath River to spawn died by the tens of thousands.

The latest count is about 33,000 dead fish. Most of those come from the fall chinook run, which before the kill was estimated to come in at 60,000 fish. But some of the dead are steelhead and threatened coho salmon, and the latter are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The Klamath River once boasted the third-largest salmon run in western North America.

Because of the fishes" three-to-five year reproduction cycle, the impact of the deaths will be felt deeply in coming years when ocean conditions could worsen and put the fish closer to extinction. The people most affected are members of the two largest Native American tribes in California—the Yurok and the Karuk—and downriver commercial fishers in communities including Eureka and Arcata.

Tribal and state biologists say the 2001 fish kill is the predictable result of water diversions from agriculture and the hot, dirty farm runoff that does make it into the Klamath River. But administration officials say they can’t be sure there’s a connection. "We don’t actually know what caused the fish kill," says Jack Garner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

In late October, biologist Michael Kelly of the National Marine Fisheries Service—the agency charged with protecting threatened salmon—requested whistleblower status. Kelly charged the agency was pushed by the administration to violate the law and allow water needed by fish to go instead to farmers.

Early in the season, the Bush administration allowed more water to the upper-basin farmers, claiming there wasn’t good scientific justification for saving water for fish. "It seems that all the assertions by the administration that fish don’t need water were wrong," says Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). "At least 33,000 dead fish now say otherwise."