Thursday, December 6, 2012

Bureaucratic Drought in the Upper Klamath....again!

While irrigation has turned vast portions of it green, the American West remains, for the most part, a summer dry region. Pervasive green fields and suburban lawns don't reflect the climate but rather the fact that most western rivers have been tapped for irrigation and municipal water. And while debate continues over how much water must remain in these rivers in order to sustain healthy aquatic ecosystems and meet other Public Trust obligations, it is accepted science that - in order to sustain aquatic ecosystems and fisheries - flows should be managed to mimic the natural hydrograph.

What this means is that flows in western rivers should be higher during winter and spring when flows are naturally higher, and lower during late summer and fall when flows are naturally low. While this pattern applies to all western rivers, each river has a unique hydrograph. Flows should be managed to rise and fall according to that unique pattern. Moreover, just as each river's natural hydrograph was different year to year, so too must managed flows be varied to simulate natural year-to-year flow variability.

While most attention has focused on minimum (i.e. late summer and fall) flows, river scientists have also discovered that high winter flows and  even periodic floods are needed to sustain healthy river ecosystems. High flows maintain channel structure and optimal riparian conditions.

River scientists have discovered that healthy rivers need flood flows.
This image shows flood flows at Klamath Glen in the Lower Klamath

Because we have a long record of flows in most western rivers, determining a rivers natural hydrograph is usually not difficult. The State of California, for example, uses flow records to calculate what river flows would be if no water was removed from California Rivers for irrigation and other purposes.

Managing to mimic the natural hydrograph, however, is often controversial. Irrigation interests, municipalities and industries always seem to want more water and they work hard to get it. Resisting those demands in order to mimic the natural hydrograph has proven problematic for the federal agencies which manage most western rivers. When politicians and interests demand more water, the managers of western rivers - typically the Army Corp of Engineers or US Bureau of Reclamation - tend to comply.

Irrigation Elite demands

While there is great controversy over the magnitude of the flows it prescribes, The Klamath River Basin's controversial water deal - the KBRA - does call for managing Klamath River flows to mimic the natural hydrograph.  But no sooner was the ink dry on that document than one of the signing "parties" - the Klamath Water Users Association - launched a campaign to make sure the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) did not follow the KBRA's flow prescriptions.

Instead the Basin's Irrigation Elite - demanded that its priorities for Klamath River Water must come first. These dominant irrigators insisted that Upper Klamath Lake - the main source of the water they use for irrigation and the source from which the Klamath River flows - must be filled as early in the water year as possible. Doing that assures maximum irrigation water availability the following summer. However, it also requires that Reclamation hold back water that should flow down the Klamath in winter. 

The US Bureau of Reclamation quickly acceded to the Irrigation Elite's demand and subsequently secured approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for its plan to suppress Klamath River winter flows in order to fill Upper Klamath Lake as early in the year as possible. Barring a legal challenge, Reclamation can be expected to continue suppressing Klamath River flows in the fall and early winter year after year.

This is essentially a return to the manner in which the Klamath River was managed before a coalition of environmental, tribal and fishing interests used the ESA to put more water down the River for the first time since Reclamation took over management of the river in 1905.  In essence Reclamation and NMFS are saying that Klamath River flows do not need to mimic the River's natural hydrograph.

Managing to fill Upper Klamath Lake as early in the year as possible is reflected in  USGS Klamath River flow data. While the USGS map below indicates that flows in all other Northern California rivers this fall have been at or above normal, flows in the Upper Klamath River have been below 25% of the long term average. That demonstrates what KlamBlog has previously asserted: bureaucratic drought is being imposed on the Upper Klamath River during fall and winter no matter how much rain falls.

  Map of 28-day average California streamflow as of December 4, 
2012 compared to historical streamflow for the day of the year

At the time, KlamBlog reported on the campaign orchestrated by the Irrigation Elite to "convince" the Bureau of Reclamation to NOT follow the agreement the Elite had recently negotiated with tribes and other interests. We found it curious back then that the self-proclaimed "defenders" of Klamath Salmon who were also "parties" to the KBRA did not use that Deal's dispute resolution process to challenge the Irrigation Elite for not supporting KBRA flows. KlamBlog still finds that curious....and a telling indication of how compromised those "defenders" have been rendered.       

Empty Promises

Since the KBRA was signed, Reclamation and NMFS issue press releases each fall assuring the public that reducing fall and winter Klamath River flows is good for salmon because the water "saved" in Upper Klamath Lake  will be used for higher spring flows. So far, however, that assurance has not proven out; spring flows have also been cut in order to maximum irrigation water delivery.

Not surprisingly, Reclamation and NMFS do not issued press releases when they fail to deliver the promised higher springtime flows. That sort of shuck-and-jive dishonesty has been a hallmark of the post-KBRA era in the Klamath River Basin. The difference now is that spokespersons for PCFFA, the Karuk Tribe and other "parties" provide media "cover" for the deceit. 

The Need for Flow Variability

Klamath River flow management under the KBRA Water Deal was reviewed for the Northcoast Environmental Center by Bill Trush - the dean of Northern California river scientists. While the Klamath is currently not being  managed to meet KBRA flows, that analysis remains pertinent to the manner in which the Bureau of Reclamation is managing river flows with NMFS approval.

Trush highlighted the impact of reduced fall and early winter flows, i.e what we are seeing in the post-KBRA era:

          " 'Flat-lining' of fall baseflows in several instream flow models, compared to natural ramping upward, could significantly reduce spawning success."

That, however, is not the most damaging impact of the manner in which Klamath River flows are being managed post KBRA. According to Bill Trush, it is the lack of flow variability year to year under the KBRA which will most likely frustrate the desire to restore the Klamath River. Like the KBRA, Reclamation will not provide flows that are optimal for salmon - the "good" flow years Bill Trush says the Klamath River needs in order for Klamath Salmon to recover.

Here are the relevant recommendations from the Trush Report:

          " much effort should be placed on guaranteeing enough good years for anadromous salmonid spawning and rearing conditions, as has been expended on guaranteeing the frequency and intensity of bad (drought) years are kept acceptably low. Recovery, as a goal stated in the Settlement Agreement, requires both;"

          " ecological analysis of instream flows will be required to identify and quantify why/how natural flow variability is necessary."

          ".....A key objective in recommending future instream flows will be shifting higher baseflows later into the snowmelt period, especially mid-May through late-June and especially in wetter years."

Bill Trush also calls for periodic high flushing flows:

          " Maintenance flow releases, as well as instream releases to curb/reverse woody riparian encroachment, have not been addressed and should be."

 Renewal of riparian vegetation as a result of 
flood flows in the Lower Klamath River Canyon

The sort of river restoration envisioned by Bill Trush is already underway on the Trinity River. The Trinity approach - which implements core concepts pioneered by Trush and his associates - contrasts sharply with the approach memorialized in the KBRA. The manner in which the Bureau of Reclamation and NMFS are currently managing Klamath River flows contrasts even more sharply with Trinity River flow and restoration management.   

The result is an unwitting experiment. As the post-KBRA era extends from years toward decades, those who live in and pay attention to conditions in these two rivers will be able to evaluate which approach works to restore salmon and the riverine aquatic ecosystems on which salmon depend. Will the geomorphic approach to river restoration pioneered by Bill Trush and others on the Trinity River yield healthier river ecosystems and restored salmon populations? Or will the post-KBRA approach being implemented by Reclamation and NMFS on the Klamath turn out to be just what salmon need.

KlamBlog will be watching, evaluating and reporting. Stay tuned. 

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