Bush Administration Releases Trinity Water in
Wake of Iron Gate Scandal
by Dan Bacher
August 28, 2003
Faced with growing concern over a failed water policy that resulted in the deaths of 33,000 salmon last September on the Klamath River, Interior Secretary Gale Norton on August 22 announced a new Trinity River flow schedule for fall releases to protect the Klamath fishery.
The release of water occurs at a time when the Bush administration is under increasing scrutiny in its “Iron Gate Scandal.” This scandal was first revealed in a Wall Street Journal article on July 31 that detailed how Karl Rove, White House political strategist, cynically pushed the president’s political agenda at a 2002 meeting where the Bureau of Reclamation was deciding how to divide up Klamath Basin water.
According to the Journal, Rove engineered the shift in Klamath water policy to divert water to agribusiness in the Klamath Basin, rather than releasing it below Iron Gate Dam for fishery purposes, to curry favor among agribusiness for an Oregon Republican senator facing re-election. When Secretary Gale Norton opened irrigation system head gates that increased the water supply to Klamath Basin farmers in 2001, Senator Gordon Smith stood beside her.
The water policy that favored agribusiness over the needs of the Klamath River tribes, recreational anglers, commercial fishermen and the Northern California economy resulted in the largest recorded fish kill in U.S. history.
The announcement also immediately followed a website action alert (www.fishsniffer.com) that urged the Bureau of Reclamation to take action to stop another fish kill. The action alert was spurred by letters from Keith Parker, Yurok tribal member, and Dan Carter, fishing guide, warning that another fish kill loomed if increasingly warm, low water conditions continued on the river. "If we don't get a release of water into the system now, we will see another kill," Carter warned. The action alert resulted in hundreds of letters sent to the President, Congressmen, Senators and others asking for immediate action.
“The Bureau didn’t release the water out of the kindness of their heart,” said Mike Orcutt, fisheries director of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. “They did it because of a court decision and because of increasing political pressure upon the Bush administration to not allow a fish kill to happen again.”
According to Norton, this release schedule follows a series of actions initiated by the Klamath Basin Working Group in March when Interior submitted a report to U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger entitled "Recommendations for Averting Another Adult Salmonid Die-Off." Last year, the Bureau was under court order not to release over 450 cfs on the Trinity below L
Norton said this action will take place following a previously scheduled increase from a summer base flow of 450 cubic feet per second (cfs) to a peak flow of 1,650 cfs in late August. Then the flow will be ramped down to 1,000 cfs by September 15, followed by a return to the summer base flow. The total volume of water associated with this proactive release schedule is 33,000 acre-feet, well within Judge Wanger's maximum allowance of 50,000 acre-feet.
Orcutt noted that the other 17,000 cfs would be held in abeyance to be used if more water is needed to stop another fish kill on the Klamath. However, Orcutt had no illusions that the increased Trinity releases would solve the complex problems of the Klamath River.
“It temporarily fixes one little problem on the Klamath system,” he said. “But at least it’s doing something proactive."
Not everybody is sure that releasing water from the Trinity - to replace water that was diverted by Klamath Basin farmers for irrigation - is such a good thing.
“The Yurok tribe does not fully support the Trinity releases like this,” said Dave Hillemeier, Yurok fishery manager. “We have some concerns about these unnatural flows from the Trinity. Will the Klamath River salmon go up the river before they do naturally? Will we just be moving a fish kill upriver?”
Hillemeier noted that the flows on the Klamath this year are better than last year because the river was reclassified from a dry to below normal year, allowing for 11,068 more acre feet of water to go over Iron Gate Dam.
Regarding concern about some fish with bacterial gill disease showing up on the river over the past two weeks, he said, “We’re keeping our eyes on the river every day. However, it’s not uncommon for a low level of columnaris (gill disease) to appear in the fish in late summer.”
What he is most concerned about is the potential appearance of the ich parasite, which was the primary contributor to last September’s fish kill.
“We’ve done some sampling to look for signs of ich, but we haven’t seen it, fortunately,” Hillemeier stated. “Ich is a parasite infection associated with a high density of fish in a river. In low, warm waters, the parasite has a faster life cycle, leading to the epidemic like we saw last year.”
Regardless of whether one views the releases as good or bad, most people concerned about the health of the Klamath fishery agree that emergency releases of water, whether from the Trinity or Klamath, are just bandaids that won’t solve the greater problems on the Klamath.
In spite of the Bureau’s announcement as a public relations move to show that it is “doing something” to prevent a fish kill, the Klamath is still under the same Department of Interior “Ten Year Plan” that resulted in the fish kill last year. A federal judge recently ruled that this plan is illegal and ordered the Bureau of Reclamation to revise the plan to protect coho salmon.
Hopefully the political fall out from the “Iron Gate Scandal,” as well as political pressure from action alerts and protests like those held by the Yurok Tribe at the “Water 2025” Conference, will force the Bush administration to adopt a basin-wide plan that no longer favors Klamath Basin farmers over the Klamath River tribes, fishermen and North Coast communities. We need common sense, fairness and balance in Klamath water management, not political favoritism to protect subsidized agribusiness interests.
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