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Yurok science drives decision to increase Klamath River flows
by Dan Bacher
Thursday Aug 22nd, 2013 10:09 PM
“The Yurok Tribe will always take whatever measures are necessary to protect the Klamath River, which is our lifeline,” said Yurok Chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr. “We intervened in this case on behalf the salmon and our people.”

Photo of Molli White, Karuk Tribal Member, and Frankie Joe Myers, Yurok Tribal Member, with their son at the protest against the Westlands lawsuit on Wednesday. White and Myers are organizers for the Klamath Justice Coalition, a grassroots direct action group that has mobilized protests for Klamath River dam removal, against the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative's violation of tribal gathering rights and in solidarity with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe's battle with the U.S. Forest Service over the tribe's right to conduct ceremonies on the McCloud River. Photo by Dan Bacher.

Below is the Yurok Tribe press release:
For Immediate Release
Contact Matt Mais
(707) 482-1350 ext. 306
Cell: (707) 954-0976
mmais [at]

Augmented Klamath River flow will help protect Chinook salmon

KLAMATH, YUROK RESERVATION - A federal court judge relied heavily on Yurok tribal science in a weighty decision to increase Klamath River flows, rather than send the water to California’s Central Valley.

The ruling, announced just after 5 p.m. today, acknowledges the biological importance of supplemental flows for Klamath River salmon in a far-reaching legal case between the Bureau of Reclamation, the Yurok Tribe and others, against Central California industrial agricultural interests.

“The Yurok Tribe will always take whatever measures are necessary to protect the Klamath River, which is our lifeline,” said Yurok Chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr. “We intervened in this case on behalf the salmon and our people.”

In the days to come, the Klamath River flows will increase to 2,800 cubic feet per second, which is the same rate the Yurok fisheries experts made a scientific case for in the Fresno courtroom over the past two days.

Originally, the Bureau of Reclamation, at the Yurok Tribe’s urging, made additional water available as part of an effort to avert a fish kill. The 2002 fish kill occurred on the Yurok Reservation in a year with river conditions much like this one.

The water was low and an abundant run of salmon was predicted to return to the Klamath. More than 33,000 Chinook and coho salmon died prior to reaching the spawning grounds.

In early August, Westlands Water District and the San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority, both of which represent a large swath of California’s multibillion dollar agricultural industry, filed suit to stop the water from being released. On August 12, a U.S. District Court judge in Fresno, California, issued a Temporary Restraining Order, which halted the delivery of water to the Klamath.

Originally, the supplemental flows were slated to begin August 13. All Klamath fish biologists are in agreement that if the water districts’ request for a preliminary injunction was successful and flows left at status quo, there would be a significant risk of another large-scale fish kill on the Klamath.

The Yurok Tribe presented key science to the court with the testimony of its two witnesses, Senior Fisheries Biologist Michael Belchik and Dr. Joshua Strange. The key to the decision was the testimony of Dr. Josh Strange, a former tribal fisheries biologist.

Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill cited research completed by Dr. Josh Strange for the Yurok Tribe and noted his experience and background regarding the issues.

This year, 272,000 fall-run salmon are expected to return to the river, nearly 1.7 times the number of fish that returned in 2002. The water release will come just before the majority of the Klamath River salmon begin to migrate upriver to spawn.

“The flows, scientifically justified by written declarations and oral testimony from both of the Yurok Tribal expert witnesses, are nearly identical to those initially proposed by the federal government earlier this month,” said Yurok Fisheries Manager Dave Hillemeier.

While the chances of a fish kill are not completely eliminated, if signs of a looming kill become evident, there is a contingency plan. If Yurok Tribal monitors, in collaboration with U.S. Fish and Wildlife fish pathologists, start to see significant numbers of diseased fish, the Tribe will seek to have flows doubled for up to seven days.

The root cause of the 2002 fish kill was the combination of a low, warm river with inadequate flows and a large run. Two lethal fish diseases were passed between the cramped fish, whose health was already compromised by the overly warm water.

The Klamath River is one of three rivers that produce the majority of the sport and commercial Chinook salmon harvest on the West Coast. The abundance of Klamath fall chinook often determines salmon season along the coast of Oregon and California, as well as throughout the Klamath Basin. A large portion of the water from the Trinity River, the Klamath’s largest tributary, is already piped to the Central Valley. Humboldt County has a claim to 50,000 acre-feet of the exported water, which the Yurok Tribe would like to become available for salmon of the basin.

The Tribe is the largest federally recognized Tribe in California and is the single largest harvester of Klamath River salmon. The Yurok Reservation spans one mile on both sides of the Klamath River for 44 miles, starting at the Pacific Ocean and ending a couple miles upstream of the Klamath’s confluence with the Trinity River.

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