Fishermen File Suit Against Klamath Ten Year Plan
by Dan Bacher
October 6, 2002
As thousands of dead chinook salmon, coho salmon and steelhead continued to litter the shores of the Klamath River in one of the worst fish kills in U.S. history, commercial fishermen and environmental groups filed litigation challenging the federal government’s ten year plan for “managing” irrigation in the Klamath Basin.
"We are in the first year of the federal government's ten-year plan for the Klamath, a plan that killed thousands of juvenile fish this spring and now thousands of adult fish as they return to spawn," said Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA). "We will not just stand by and let the Bureau of Reclamation kill these fish and our way of life.
The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of PCFFA and Institute for Fisheries Resources, joined by The Wilderness Society, WaterWatch of Oregon, Northcoast Environmental Center, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Klamath Forest Alliance, Headwaters, and Congressman Mike Thompson. This lawsuit is yet another in a series of legal actions filed by the Yurok, Klamath and Karuk tribes, commercial fishermen, sport fishermen and environmental activists to protect salmon and other fish in the Klamath River watershed.
The lawsuit was prompted over outrage by fishermen and environmental activists over the killing of an estimated 30,000 salmon because of low, warm conditions that fostered an outbreak of gill disease in September. Fortunately, the fish kill was abating at press time because of a temporary increase in flows by the Bureau of Reclamation.
"These dead fish represent thousands of jobs, millions of dollars, and priceless resources that are being destroyed due to the Bush Administration's failures in the Klamath Basin,” said Congressman Mike Thompson. “This massive fish kill will only get worse if the Department of Interior continues to ignore the downstream fishing, tribal, and working communities of the lower Klamath Basin."
The fish kill occurred because the Bush administration in a drought year decided to favor farmers over the Hupa, Karuk and Yurok tribes, sport anglers, commercial fishermen and North Coast economies by diverting water to farmers that should have been sent downriver to sustain migrating adult and juvenile fish. Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, in support of potato, alfalfa and hay farmers in the Klamath Basin that waged protests last year when their water was cut off, opened the diversion gates to the farmer’s fields this year.
The so-called “Ten Year Plan” emerged from the cabinet level “Klamath River Basin Federal Working Group” created by President Bush this March. Chaired by Norton, the group includes representatives of the Departments of Interior, Agriculture and Commerce and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
According to the plaintiffs, the plan fails to assure that enough water will be released to the Lower Klamath River to keep from devastating its king and coho salmon and steelhead runs. Because Klamath River coho are protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service must approve any long-term irrigation plan devised by the Bureau of Reclamation. This summer, the Fisheries Service determined that the Bureau's plan would jeopardize the continued survival to Klamath River coho. However, when the Fisheries Service issued its modifications to the Bureau's plan, it failed to require adequate measures to protect the salmon.
"The current plan relies on guess-work and voluntary measures," said Glen Spain of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations Northwest Office in Oregon. "In spite of more rainfall, salmon actually have less water in the river this year than during last year's record drought.”
Although the Department of Fish and Game did not join in the lawsuit, it also decried the plan as inadequate for maintaining the fall king salmon, coho and steelhead runs. "It has been our position all along that the commitment to fish is not satisfied by the plan,” said Paul Wertz, DFG information officer. “The plan provided for flows of only 700 cfs, while the DFG asked for flows of 1300 cfs - and look what happened!”
Recreational anglers also blasted the plan. "The Bush administration last year courted heavily subsidized irrigators and paid them tens of millions in relief aid to grow crops in the Klamath Basin,” stated Byron Leydecker, president of Friends of the Trinity River and member of the Board of Governors, California Trout. “It then chose to develop a ten year plan for operation of the Klamath River system that knowingly was flawed fatally from day one. That plan has wound up killing tens of thousands of fall chinook and threatened coho salmon and steelhead.”
"The fish kill’s a real tragedy, but it’s indicative of what fish are facing all year around now due to the flow regime that's now in place up the river," added Dave Hillemeier, Yurok Tribe fisheries biologist and fisheries program manager.
Adult salmon returning upriver to spawn and juveniles migrating downriver are hurt or killed by high water temperatures and poor water quality due to low river flows. Sustained river temperatures above about 60 degrees F. can be fatal to salmon, but temperatures in the river in the weeks prior to the kill were well into the high 70's and even low 80's F.
Salmon provide millions of dollars for tribal and commercial ocean fishermen and draw thousands of recreational anglers every year to spend money with fishing guides, resorts, hotels, sport shops, stores, gas stations and other businesses along the coast.
As the state and federal governments assessed the damage causes by this massive fish kill, the “wise use” movement, led by groups like the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Klamath Water Users Association, continued to put this in false terms as a conflict between “fish and jobs,” when it is really a conflict between sustainable jobs provided by a healthy fishing economy and unsustainable “jobs” provided to subsidized farmers in the Klamath Basin.
To avoid putting the blame on the irrigators, a press release from the Klamath Water Users Association described the fish kill as an unsolved mystery. “The U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that flow increases from the Klamath and Trinity Projects will be used to address the current crisis on the lower Klamath River, where overcrowded conditions have contributed to the mysterious death of thousands of fish.”
Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, urged anglers to call or write Secretary Gale Norton, to express their outrage over the destruction of Klamath River fish caused by the “Ten Year Plan.” Contact her at: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C. Street N.W. Washington, DC 20240 (202) 208-3100.
Daniel Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical songwriter from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
See also: “Something Rotten in Klamath,” by Jeffrey St. Clair:
Links to more information on Klamath salmon: