Thursday, August 15, 2013

Klamath Water Woes

On Wednesday a federal judge in Fresno issued a temporary injunction halting the planned release of additional water from Trinity Dam to the Trinity and Lower Klamath Rivers. The Bureau of Reclamation had scheduled the pulse flow in order “to prevent a potentially serious fish die off impacting salmon populations entering the Klamath River estuary.”

An injunction can only be issued if the judge believes those seeking the injunction are likely to prevail in the subject litigation. In his order granting a temporary injunction Judge Lawrence O'Neill indicated that:
          The Trinity River Record of Decision (TRROD), which, among other things, sets forth the volume of water to be released to provide in-stream flows below Lewiston Dam on the Trinity River
in various water year types, clearly indicates that while “the schedule for releasing water on a daily basis ...may be adjusted...the annual flow volumes...may not be changed.”

The Judge has promised to make a final decision on the requested injunction on August 16th after parties and intervenors submit replies to their respective original briefs. It appears likely he will issue a full, ongoing injunction at that time.

Meanwhile, native fishermen tell KlamBlog that, while some some adult salmon have already ascended the Klamath River, most of the expected large run come into the estuary but then – sensing that conditions are bad for making the run - go back to the ocean.

 Where River meets Sea

Reclamation could still help the salmon

There is debate among fisheries biologists about whether artificial, short duration pulse flows as proposed by Reclamation are a good idea. Fishermen report that past pulse flows on the Trinity (aka South Fork Klamath) side of the basin – while they entice the fish to run up river – subsequently confused them when Reclamation turned off the spigot at Trinity Dam and the higher flows ended.

Some biologists are concerned that many of the adult salmon attracted upriver by increased flows will turn left at Weitchpec and enter a Klamath River above the Trinity confluence which is running low and is polluted to the extreme. KlamBlog shares the fear that augmented flows in the Trinity could help create a large die-off of adult salmon in the Klamath River above Weitchpec. 

The threat of a fish kill above Weitchpec has motivated some activists to call for more water to be released from Iron Gate Dam in order to ameliorate poor flow and water quality conditions in the Klamath River below iron Gate Dam. Others feel that increasing Klamath River flows could be detrimental to salmon because water from the Upper Klamath River Basin is of such poor quality. Increased Klamath flows could be particularly detrimental to salmon if they are not sustained or are "ramped up" too rapidly.

As one fisheries biologist quipped recently, temporarily augmenting river flows to prevent a repeat of the 2002 fish kill in the Lower Klamath River is, in essence, an “uncontrolled experiment”.

Post Adjudication

Not withstanding the experimental nature of artificially augmenting Klamath and Trinity flows in August, and the questionable legality of augmenting Trinity River flows this year, the Bureau of Reclamation possess the legal right and ability to augment flows on the Klamath River (North Fork Klamath) side of the basin in a sustained manner The State of Oregon recently completed the Klamath Basin Adjudication and granted to the federal government the top priority among consumptive uses of water.1 Under Oregon law, those water rights can be temporarily or permanently shifted from irrigation and used to augment Klamath River flows or to provide water to Klamath Wildlife Refuges.

Furthermore, Reclamation failed to meet minimum Klamath River flows the agency stated in their 2013OperationsPlan they would provide. Reclamation failed to meet minimum Klamath flows during 11 days in April, 29 days in May and 12 days in June. During the same period, the Agency also dewatered Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges in order to provide more water to the irrigation interests it serves.

At the same time Reclamation was shorting the Klamath River and providing San Joaquin farmers who rely on Trinity River water with only 20% of their full, contracted water allocation, the same Agency provided Klamath Project Irrigators with about 80% of their full, contracted water allocation. This is yet one more reason KlamBlog refers to the Klamath Basin's pampered federal irrigators as the Irrigation Elite.

Not what they once were

The minimum ESA flows which the Bureau of Reclamation failed to honor in April, May and June are substantially lower than flows which prior ESA Biological Opinions provided in the Klamath River. Below is a graph comparing current minimum ESA flows (2013 Biological Opinion) with flows provided under two prior Biological Opinions as well as flows recommended in flow studies. In spite of the fact that minimum flows mandated by the 2002 Biological Opinion were found by federal courts to be insufficient to protect salmon, those lower flows are supported by former champions of Klamath Salmon including the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and other “parties” which signed the KBRA Water Deal. It appears that, as in the novel 1984, for PCFFA and those others less is more.

The Irrigation Elite would have received even more water if the KBRA Water Deal which PCFFA and others support had been authorized by Congress. 

Klamath River Flow Plan







2010 Coho Biological Opinion
(These are very close to KBRA flows which the Merkley-Thompson bill would lock in for 50 years)







2002 Coho Biological Opinion  (This Bi-Op was declared illegal because it ignored the best science, i.e. the Hardy II flows below)







Hardy Phase II
(This study is the best available science on flows needed to sustain Coho and other Klamath River Salmon)







2013 Coho-Sucker Biological Opinion Minimum Flows







2012-2013 Actual Iron Gate Flows (minimum daily flow)






When asked whether they would challenge the failure of Reclamation to meet minimum flows in April, May and June in court, PCFFA's Glen Spain told KlamBlog that they were "taking a long hard look at this, and will take appropriate actions."
As lead plaintiff, PCFFA controls Klamath ESA litigation by Earthjusticethe firm which litigated past Biological Opinions on behalf of a coalition of groups. Others could, of course, file a challenge to thetakeof ESA species; Reclamation's shorting of river flows contributed substantially to the number of dead juvenile Coho Salmon floating down the River this year. However, there would be a steep learning curve for the lawyer filing such a case.

Environmental Water Account

KlamBlog's Felice Pace has called for the National Marine Fisheries Service to tell the US Bureau of Reclamation to return the water Reclamation failed to provide as Klamath flows in April, May and June to the Klamath's Environmental Water Account. The account is an innovation included in the 2013 Biological Opinion on Klamath Project Operations.

The Klamath's Environmental Water Account is supposed to provide Coho Salmon in the Klamath River and Kuptu and Tuam in Klamath Lake with water fisheries managers can use as needed to help fish. Water not provided as flows this spring should be considered as still in the account and, therefore, available for environmental uses.

Ideally, environmental water would first be run through marshes on Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge before being sent down the Klamath River as augmented flows. Marshes remove nutrients from water in essence cleaning it. Running environmental water through Lower Klamath Refuge would result in better Klamath River water quality while also helping refuge birds whose habitat has been dewatered by Reclamation. 

 Snow Geese on Lower Klamath Refuge before dewatering.
Studies have shown that these marshes have the ability 
to clean polluted run-off from agricultural fields

Managers at the Bureau of Reclamation, however, appear to have no such intention; Klamath River flows issuing from Iron Gate so far this month are flat-lined at the bare minimum – 900 cubic feet per second. Apparently the agency has already given the water cut from springtime Klamath River flows to the Irrigation Elite.

A Ray of Hope

When does a cloud of smoke equal a ray of hope? The answer is, right now!

Several fires – some caused by lightening and some likely arson – are currently burning in Northwest California and Southwest Oregon, including two in the Salmon River Sub-basin. Ironically, the smoke from those fires may prevent a repeat this year of the massive 2002 die-off of adult Klamath Salmon. That's because the smoke blocks solar radiation; as a result the temperature of water in the Klamath River above Weitchpec has fallen about 10 degrees. In addition, less solar radiation reaching the earth's surface means less photosynthesis and lower tree and plant respiration. That results in small increases in streamflow which could make a big difference for migrating salmon.

Smoke from the Salmon River Fires may be returning salmons' life line

While studying her ways, scientists have discovered that Pachamama (Mother Earth) often provides mechanisms that adjust for harsh and dangerous conditions. In the case of Pacific Salmon, they evolved in a landscape which we know from tree ring and lake sediment studies was characterized by periods of drought. Not surprising, the same data reveals that times of droughts were also times of increased fire activity. So it comes that the impact of drought on salmon stocks has often been mitigated by the very fires resulting from the drought. Scientists have a word for the phenomenon – co-evolution.

There is poetry and natural justice in the fact that while humans devise “uncontrolled experiments” in our desire to help the salmon, Pachamama does it in her own manner.; proving, once again, that the Mother is smarter than all those scientists put together.

Let's all hope Pachamama brings those Klamath Salmon home.


1The Klamath Tribes posses the highest priority water rights in the Upper Basin. However, those are rights to in-stream flows above Upper Klamath Lake. The Tribes applied for rights to flows in the Klamath River but that claim was denied by Oregon. The Klamath Tribes will have to challenge that denial in court and prevail in order for the Tribes to gain the right to salmon recovery flows in the Klamath River. Recovery flows would presumably be significantly higher than current ESA flows which are only intended to prevent “jeopardy” for ESA-listed Coho Salmon. The Klamath Tribes have not yet indicated whether or not they will appeal the denial of rights to salmon recovery flows in the Klamath River.


Mike Vozick, New York City said...

Thanks for the fine & comprehensive review. We are with the salmon, the salmon are with us.

Anonymous said...

Nice writing and summary, though some facts need to be fixed. The 2010 BO minimums, Phase II minimums, and the 2002 BO description need more accurate reporting. For instance, when comparing minimum flows, we need to look at apples with apples. Why was 90% exceedance flows chosen when 95% exceedance flows for the 2010 BO and the Hardy Phase II flows are available?

Also, the 2002 BO comment about that being illegal because it ignored the best available science (i.e., Phase II report) is not correct. The Hardy Phase II report was finalized in 2006, whereas the BO was completed in 2002. If I recall correctly, what was wrong with the BO is that NMFS analyzed the long term flows (aka Phase 3) properly but not the first two. Therefore, the court required Reclamation to implement Phase 3 flows until there's a new consultation. If the 2002 BO was "illegal", the Klamath wouldn't have those flows you listed in the table.

Please check your facts so that your blog can be more credible. Finally, thanks for sharing info and for being a Klamath and salmon advocate.