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Hoopa Valley Tribe accuses feds of endangering Klamath coho salmon
by Dan Bacher
Friday Nov 9th, 2012 9:23 AM
“This year the Klamath BOR refused to guarantee water for the Klamath salmon, and therefore had to release additional flows from the Trinity River, the Klamath’s largest tributary, to avoid a late summer fish kill,” stated Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairman Leonard Masten. “Now, for the second year in a row, the BOR and the National Marine Fisheries Service are violating Endangered Species Act flows for Coho Salmon. If this is any indication of the Bureau’s future water planning, I do not see how the salmon can recover."

Photo of the Klamath River below Iron Gate Dam by Dan Bacher.

Hoopa Valley Tribe accuses feds of endangering Klamath coho salmon

By Dan Bacher

Hoopa Valley Tribe officials are accusing the federal government of harming migrating coho salmon on the Klamath River by reducing flows below Iron Gate Dam in Siskiyou County as low as 1,000 cfs.

In a statement, the Tribe slammed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for providing full agricultural deliveries to the Klamath Project farmers this year despite fears there could be another Klamath River fish kill. The fears were spurred by federal and state agency predications of a record high run of fall run chinook salmon entering the Klamath during low flows.

The Tribe said current lake levels resulting from full irrigation deliveries in the arid Upper Klamath Basin have prompted the Bureau to lower the Klamath River wintertime water levels below flows required for endangered Coho Salmon “while the very agency charged with protecting the threatened Coho, the National Marine Fisheries Service, nods willingly in approval.”

“This year the Klamath BOR refused to guarantee water for the Klamath salmon, and therefore had to release additional flows from the Trinity River, the Klamath’s largest tributary, to avoid a late summer fish kill,” stated Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairman Leonard Masten. “Now, for the second year in a row, the BOR and the National Marine Fisheries Service are violating Endangered Species Act flows for Coho Salmon. If this is any indication of the Bureau’s future water planning, I do not see how the salmon can recover."

Commercial and recreational fishing for coho salmon has been banned in California waters for over a decade, due to the dramatic decline in coho salmon caused by water diversions, dams and bad logging practices in California rivers.

Federal officials counter that a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) report on flow releases said coho salmon can successfully migrate and spawn in the river when the water is running at 1,000 cfs in November and December. The river at press time was flowing at 1,200 cfs below Irongate Dam. While flows during the next two months may vary, NMFS officials said they won't go below 1,000 cfs.

A letter from Irma Lagomarsino, NMFS Northern California Office Supervisor, reviewing the BOR proposal to lower flows to 1000 cfs. base flow at Iron Gate concluded that the flow reduction would not have “great effects” upon endangered coho.

“Based on our review, NMFS finds that implementation of Reclamation’s proposed modifications are expected to increase the probability of enhancing IGD flows in the spring of 2013 and will not result in great effects to coho salmon and their designated critical habitat than what NMFS described in our 2010 Opinion,” said. “For these reasons, NMFS determined that Reclamation's proposed modifications are consistent with our 2010 Opinion."

Craig Tucker, Klamath Program Coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said, "We generally agree with the NMFS conclusion here, but think BOR could do a better job to not end the season with the lake at such a low level."

He said the situation of the river is “more complicated” than how the Hoopa Tribe portrays it.

“Details are important,” he said. “The lake is lower than it should be. It shouldn’t be this low in November. The Bureau over drafted the lake and is now playing catch up.”

He said the most important thing now is allowing Klamath Lake to fill up to provide spring flows for salmon and steelhead.

“With the situation as it is, the focus should be on getting Klamath Lake full so we will have better spring flows to get the juvenile salmon downriver. Having a full lake is necessary to provide adequate spring flows. Our problem now is having flows for fish come spring," Tucker stated.

However, the Hoopa Tribe said the situation where flows are reduced in November and December is “an indication we could be falling back into the policies of the past where farmers in the Klamath were favored above Tribes and fishermen.”

The Tribe noted that in 2002 these policies of favoring irrigators over fish and Tribes led to low, warm flows that spurred over 68,000 adult salmon, mainly Chinook, to perish in the river, devastating Tribes and coastal fishing communities.

“In many years since, the endangered Coho also have been shorted water,” according to the Tribe. “The Klamath River salmon runs regulate coastal fishing in California and Oregon, and subsequent low salmon runs led to years of economic disasters. Experts say poor water policy impacts both species of salmon.”

This year, as a result of good ocean conditions and restored flows resulting from the historic Trinity Record of Decision (ROD), an estimated 378,000 salmon came up the Klamath River and Iron Gate Fish Hatchery reported the second largest run on record. These salmon led to a boom for coastal fishing and tribal communities in a poor economy, with the best fishing in a decade reported by fishing guides and anglers fishing the river in the Hornbrook area this fall.

"This run was facing conditions similar to 2002 until federal agencies heeded the advice of Tribes, fishermen and scientists and allocated more water from the Trinity to avoid another Klamath fish kill," according to the Tribe. "Many fear returning to the unscientific policies of the past could undermine the last ten years of restoration."

Regina Chichizola from the Hoopa Valley Tribe emphasized, “In the last decade we saw the beginning of large-scale restoration on the Trinity River, the Klamath’s largest, most fish producing tributary; the movements to take down dams; court ruling favoring Tribal water rights; and a myriad of efforts to restore watersheds and the people who depend on them. Proposals like this could undo all of this investment.”

Chichizola said there are still areas where Chinook salmon are pooled up at Klamath tributaries, including the Scott River, because there is too little water due to agriculture deliveries.

“Salmon are the Hoopa people’s most important resource,” explained Chairman Masten. “This is the first year in recent memory that the Tribes in the Klamath, and coastal fishermen, had enough salmon. We have fought too hard to go back now.”

Yurok Tribe biologists agreed with Hoopa Valley Tribe officials that the flow decrease was unwarranted.

“We do not believe the current hydrological conditions warrant a flow decrease," said Mike Belchik, Yurok Tribe senior fisheries biologist. “The position of the Klamath Lake being really low is a result of a conscious decision of the Bureau this summer, not because of a drought.”

Meanwhile, the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery reported the second best fall Chinook salmon run on record. The facility trapped 38,000 salmon, compared to 12,000 fish last year and an average of 16,000 salmon. The hatchery spawned 3180 kings this season - and will have no problem meeting its mitigation goal.

The hatchery is just starting to spawn coho salmon. "There are plenty of coho in the fish trap, including quite a few jacks," said Keith Pomeroy hatchery manager. "We're seeing about the same amount of coho that we saw to date last year."

The battle by Tribes, fishermen, environmentalists and family farmers to restore the Klamath River takes place as Governor Jerry Brown and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are fast-tracking the construction of the peripheral tunnels to export more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to corporate agribusiness interests on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California water agencies. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan to build the peripheral tunnels poses a big threat to the Trinity River, since much of the water to fill the tunnels will inevitably come from the Trinity, the Klamath's largest tributary.

The Trinity County Board of Supervisors on November 6 adopted a "Position of Opposition to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan to construct a major isolated water conveyance system in the Delta and move additional Northern California water south of the Delta."