Monday, January 26, 2015

Trinity Victory not a solution for Klamath Salmon

There was good news in January for those who value and depend on Klamath River Salmon. Lawyers for the Department of Interior released a legal opinion finding that Humboldt County's right to 50,000 acre feet of the water stored behind Trinity Dam is distinct from water designated when the dam was built to sustain Trinity River fisheries. The US Bureau of Reclamation, part of the Interior Department, had claimed the opposite. That allowed them to divert more water from the Trinity and ship that water to corporate farms far to the south in the San Joaquin Valley.

North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman, who had pushed for release of the legal opinion, hailed its release in a special press release
          Humboldt County’s annual right to 50,000 acre feet of water from Trinity Lake is not a close call – it was explicitly guaranteed by statute and in a federal contract six decades ago, but these commitments have been ignored by the federal government....I’m gratified that the Solicitor thoroughly examined this issue and that the Interior Department heeded my requests to publicly release the solicitor’s findings.  The disclosure of the Solicitor’s legal opinion confirms the position I have argued for the past two years and is an important step toward honoring the promise Congress made 60 years ago.

Before becoming an elected official, Congressman Huffman was an environmental lawyer at the NRDC where he specialized in water law. 

Ich (Gill Rot) Disease 

If followed by the US Bureau of Reclamation, the legal opinion should make more water available to prevent unnatural die-offs of Klamath-Trinity Salmon. But using Trinity water to mitigate for inadequate flows and terrible Klamath River water quality is not a solution. Trinity River water enters the Klamath low in the watershed at Weitchpec. Increased Trinity water releases can help prevent adult salmon die-offs in the Lower River but will not prevent juvenile salmon migrating through the mid and upper Klamath River from contracting fish diseases which are related to poor water quality and low river flows.

Scientists and government reports confirm what has been hidden from most citizens: In 2014 up to 100% of the juvenile Chinook salmon monitored while migrating down the Klamath River were found to be diseased. High disease rates occur in every dry year as flows are cut and always poor water quality gets even worse. Biologists tell us these fish may or may not die as juveniles but are significantly less likely than healthy salmon to survive long enough to return, as adults, to spawn in Klamath tributaries.

Algae clogs the River starved of flows to maximize irrigation water delivery

Why is it that the yearly tragedy of Klamath River juvenile salmon disease and mortality is not reported in the media? And why is it that the self-proclaimed defenders of Klamath Salmon - the Yurok and Karuk Tribal Governments - whose leaders have claimed that for their peoples "salmon is everything" are not bringing this information out and taking action to address the Klamath's salmon-killing flows and terrible water quality?

In essence, the Yurok and Karuk Tribal Governments have become docile in the face of ongoing Klamath outrages because they agreed in the 2010 KBRA Water Deal to support the Bureau of Reclamation's management of Klamath River water. Reclamation manages Klamath water to maximize diversion and delivery of irrigation water. Under the KBRA the Klamath River gets minimum flows barely sufficient to prevent ESA listed Coho salmon from going extinct and a promise of higher spring flows when and if there is water in excess of irrigation demand.

These tribes have also become increasingly dependent on funding from the US Bureau of Reclamation to run their fisheries and restoration departments and projects. If these tribal governments were to anger Reclamation managers that funding could and would be cut off. In essence, it is jobs and government funding which help make Karuk and Yurok leaders docile in the face of ongoing threats to salmon. 

To make matters worse, the Upper Basin's Klamath Tribes recently agreed to give up their claim to Klamath River flows for salmon below Upper Klamath Lake if the federal government comes up with money to buy land and for economic development projects. The Klamath Tribes' leaders want to get into the timber business and they are willing to give-up their right to Klamath salmon flows if the feds will finance their business plans.

Are the Yurok, Karuk and Klamath tribal governments selling out Klamath salmon? Each person must judge for herself. KlamBlog takes note, however. that humans are adept at rationalizing their decisions. It is thus likely that tribal government leaders truly believe they are acting in the best interest of the River and Klamath Salmon. Like many other tribal governments across the West, most restoration organizations and even some environmental groups, these leaders have bought the idea that funding for "restoration" can substitute for the river flows needed to restore salmon to abundance.  

Where they have water rights related to fisheries, federal tribes have a right to river and stream flows sufficient to restore fisheries to the point where they can provide a moderate living for the tribal folk who depend on them. Across the West, however, the right to restoration flows is being negotiated away by tribal government leaders in exchange for funding for tribal programs, infrastructure and "restoration".

Historians will look back at these water deals as the second great rip-off of the American West's Indigenous natives: first they took the land and tried to "exterminate" the people; now, with the acquiescence of tribal governments, they are taking the water for the modern equivalent of a fistful of beads. History will not look kindly upon tribal government leaders who made these Faustian water deals. 

History will also make clear that the idea we can substitute "restoration" for the water flows a river needs is hogwash. Unfortunately, by then it will likely be too late for Pacific Salmon.

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