Thursday, September 1, 2011

Whales, Worms and Water - A month on the Klamath

For much of August a female Gray Whale nicknamed Momma took up residence in the Lower Klamath River. Staying in the vicinity of the Highway 101 bridge, the behemoth became such a tourist attraction that CalTrans had to put up signs warning of pedestrians on the two lane bridge. The bridge provides limited space for a single pedestrian, much less the crowds that sought a glimpse of the creature.  The whale has now passed away and, after being studied by scientists, has been respectfully buried on land.

"Momma" the gray whale in the Lower Klamath River

As reported in the Two Rivers Tribune, Indigenous natives consider such unusual behavior to be a warning to humans. Yurok ceremonial leader Chris Peters summarized the traditional view:
           This is perhaps a message of something still more foreboding yet to come. A signpost in time—when the ocean is polluted with human waste and the sonar sounds of US Navy testing invade the oceans,” he said. “As I think about the spiritual significance of such a large mammal—a very close relative—choosing to give her life in the Klamath River, I can only assume that it’s a sign—a very important sign that we all need to take note of and prepare for change to come.

While it would be tempting to interpret the message as a judgment on how the Klamath River is being managed, no one has apparently made that claim. That’s a sign the respect Momma received in life continues after her passing.

Worms and Water

Flows in the lower Klamath River remain more substantial than those we’ve seen in many summers. Thanks go to the Hoopa Tribe which fought the long fight for more water in the Trinity and to the weather gods which favored us with the best Klamath Mountains snowpack in decades.  The higher flows are expected to decrease the prevalence of fish disease in the Klamath River. Epidemic levels of disease related to poor water quality in the Klamath, Shasta and Scott Rivers have been responsible for an annual, mass die-off of juvenile Coho and Chinook salmon and Steelhead on their way to the ocean. This year’s higher flows are expected to reduce the worm-like stage of one of the parasitic diseases which annually destroy young Klamath Salmon en route to the ocean. For more on Klamath fish diseases and what is being done to combat them see this link.  

Meanwhile PacifiCorp has used the KHSA’s dispute resolution process to negotiate a deal with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) which will allow the company and Reclamation to cut Klamath River flows below “minimum” flows set out in the 2010 Biological Opinion. The decision to further lower minimum flows - which were already cut in the 2010 Biological Opinion in order to conform to the KBRA Water Deal - is hidden in the body of letters exchanged by PacifiCorp, Reclamation and MNFS.

In its February 4th letter to NMFS and Interior/Reclamation PacifiCorp states:
           Reclamation will request written concurrence from NMFS that compliance with minimum flows specified in MNFS’ 2010 Biological Opinion for Reclamation’s operation of the Klamath Irrigation Project may be accomplished with actual flows falling within a reasonable range above or below the target minimum flow. The reasonable range and target minimum flow will be established by NMFS after further consultation among PacifiCorp, Reclamation and NMFS.

On February 7th NMFS responded to PacifiCorp. The wording is (intentionally?) confusing but the effect is to authorize lower flows than those contained in the 2010 Biological Opinion:
           NMFS anticipates some deviation from the proposed ramp down rates may occur due to PacifiCorp’s operational constraints…

While the letters quoted above have been published, the actual setting of “target minimum flow” was deferred. That critical step has likely now been completed in closed door meetings. This is the sort of mischief which occurs when backroom dealing becomes the norm as it has on the Klamath under the Dam and Water Deals.

KlamBlog challenges NMFS leaders to publish on the Klamath Restoration website a comparison of the new target minimum flow they’ve set with PacifiCorp and Reclamation, the target minimum flow from the 2010 Bi-Op and the target minimum flow from the 2002 Bi-Op.  We believe that comparison will make it clear that promoters of the KHSA and KBRA continue to use backroom dealing to cut the amount of water available for Klamath River Salmon.

A different species of water

The Two Rivers Tribune recently reported that Oregon Senator Jeff Markley is prepared to “carry water” for PacifiCorp and other Klamath Deal “parties” in order to implement the Klamath Dam and Water Deals. Markley has circulated draft legislation to Deal “parties” - those who have signed on to the KHSA and KBRA) for comment. Because they deviate from normal government procedures, the Dam Deal and key aspects of the Water Deal cannot be implemented without federal legislation.

It is widely believed that legislation to implement the Deals will face a tough road in the House of Representatives where California Congressman Tom McClintock has signaled strong opposition. McClintock was recently able to get a provision blocking funding for studies related to the Deals through the House. However, his funding prohibition did not survive in the final legislation.

Recently Oregon Wild circulated a letter to Senator Markley which dealt exclusively with the impact of the Deals on the complex of Klamath Wildlife Refuges.  That has fueled speculation that the Oregon group is willing to accept other Water Deal provisions if it can get what it wants for the refuges. 

Fall on Tule Lake NWR. 
The complex of Klamath Refuges hosts 80% of Pacific Flyway birds during migration.
Many environmental groups oppose commercial farming on the Klamath Refuges

Oregon Wild’s action is one indication that environmental groups which oppose aspects of the Dam and Water Deals have not coalesced into a coalition or offered coherent, comprehensive alternatives to the Dam and Water Deals. Those groups include Oregon Wild and Water Watch in Oregon, the Northcoast Environmental Center, EPIC and Friends of the River in California and the Sierra Club in both states.

Less Water

As this KlamBlog is being published the last patches of snow are melting in the mountains above the Scott River Valley. When those patches are gone, flows in the national forest streams feeding Scott River will drop dramatically. There will not be sufficient flow to maintain hundreds of stream diversions, keep groundwater levels high and still provide wet habitat for young Coho, Chinook and Steelhead living in Scott River and major tributaries in the Scott River Valley.

It remains to be seen whether Scott River itself – which this year is full of young salmon – will go dry this fall or whether there will be sufficient flow when adult Chinook spawners begin arriving in late September. But the fact that some streams have already dried up does not bode well for salmon and steelhead.

Meanwhile the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) was in Scott Valley a week ago asking irrigators to voluntarily put water into Scott Valley streams to keep Coho, Chinook and Steelhead from dying as the streams go dry. The meeting provided an opportunity for more government bashing by Tea Party folks. The actual irrigators in attendance appeared unwilling to lend a helping hand to Coho. As KlamBlog has pointed out, CDFG would not need to beg for water if it were willing to enforce provisions of the California Constitution which provide fish with a first right to streamflow sufficient to keep them “in good condition”.

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