Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Felice Pace talks about Klamath water management and salmon diseases on the Jefferson Exchange

On May 8th, KlamBlog editor and chief writer Felice Pace was interviewed on Jefferson Public Radio's Jefferson Exchange. The discussion included the US Bureau of Reclamation's decision to use taxpayer funds to pay for private irrigators to pump 45,000 acre feet of groundwater for irrigation this growing season. Felice questioned whether taxpayers should be footing the bill so that irrigators within the sprawling Klamath Irrigation Project can mine groundwater in order to fully irrigate during a drought. You can listen to the interview and leave a comment at this link.

Ever since Reclamation was forced to release water to the Klamath River to prevent "jeopardy" to ESA-listed Coho Salmon, the Klamath River Basin's Irrigation Elite  has been able to continue fully irrigating even in drought years by mining the Upper Basin's deep aquifer, extracting groundwater in an unsustainable manner.

Groundwater mining occurs when the amount of groundwater extracted over time exceeds the amount of groundwater recharge. As shown in the graph below, the deep water table in the Tulelake Area (the lower Lost River Basin) has dropped significantly since 1992 when Reclamation was forced to allow more water to flow down the Klamath River. The groundwater aquifer has failed to recover even during years of above average precipitation and snow pack.

 Groundwater elevation in the Tule lake area over time (source: USGS)
The irresponsible lowering of the groundwater table in order to fully irrigate during drought years has caused nearby towns (Tulelake in California, Merrill and Malin in Oregon) to drill deeper for drinking water. Even so, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) testing indicates that drinking water wells in the Oregon portion of the Lower Lost River Basin are polluted with nitrates, pesticides and other toxic agricultural residues.

Oregon DEQ has been reported as calculating that 15,000 acre feet of water could be safely extracted from groundwater in the Tule Lake Area (lower Lost River Basin) this year. Reclamation is using taxpayer funds to facilitate the removal of 3 times that amount!

Another silent Klamath Salmon disaster

Meanwhile fish disease levels in the Klamath River below Iron Gate Dam continue to rise. During what should be the height of salmon out migration, few juvenile salmon are showing up in mid-Klamath River monitoring traps operated by the Karuk Tribe.

The lack of juvenile salmon migrating down the Klamath River may indicate that the fish disease epidemic is already killing most juvenile Klamath Salmon, including ESA and California ESA listed Coho salmon. Last year up to 100% of juvenile salmon tested were found to be diseased; only 8% of radio tagged juvenile salmon made it to the ocean.

Salmon diseases are natural in the Klamath and other salmon rivers; under normal conditions only 10 to 20% of the salmon become diseased. The epidemic fish disease rates found in Klamath River juvenile salmon are unprecedented anywhere within the range of Pacific Salmon.

Scientists tell us epidemic disease rates present in the Klamath River are the result of low flows and poor water quality. They also confirm that the "reduction of the commercial (salmon) catch by 90% in 2006 was a direct result of the weak returns of Chinook salmon to the Klamath River (KR). Severe infection by the myxozoan parasite Ceratomyxa shasta has, in large part, been responsible for the declining numbers of juvenile KR fall Chinook and Coho salmon and subsequent impacts on later adult returns." You can read the full text of what scientists have to say about the disease situation in the Klamath River, how that impacts tribal and coastal communities, and what can be done to reduce salmon disease infection rates at this link.

Meanwhile agencies responsible for cleaning up Klamath River pollution - the North Coast Water Quality Control Board and Oregon DEQ - refuse to regulate agricultural pollution preferring to promote "voluntary compliance" which is referred to in agency-speak as the "Watershed Stewardship Approach".

Voluntary compliance with the Clean Water Act has been tried many times and has never succeeded in restoring water quality and beneficial uses. It was tried, for example, for 20 years in Chesapeake Bay watersheds only to abandoned because water quality in the Bay did not improve. KlamBlog believes the embrace of the "Watershed Stewardship Approach" in the Klamath River Basin will assure that water quality will not improve and that the salmon disease epidemics will continue.  Only real regulation of agricultural pollution, by far the main source of the Klamath River's terrible water  quality, will solve the Klamath's salmon disease epidemic.

Until Klamath River pollution is reduced significantly, scientists say higher Klamath River flows are needed in spring to flush out disease organisms and thereby slow the epidemic loss of juvenile salmon. But the US Bureau of Reclamation continues to provide only bare minimum, ESA flows. As this post is written Iron Gate water releases are flatlined at the 1180 cfs minimum.

The Klamath's salmon disease epidemic continues to "take" Coho Salmon in violation of the federal and the California ESA. Nevertheless, not one of the organizations claiming to care for Klamath Salmon appears willing to challenge a Biological Opinion which allows the Bureau of Reclamation to starve the River of the spring flushing flows needed to reduce the disease epidemic.

Loss of juvenile salmon migrating down the Klamath River is approaching 100% from Iron Gate Dam right down to the Pacific. Like the three monkeys in the classic sculpture, however, agencies, tribes, fishing and environmental groups (and even reporters) refuse to see what is happening, to hear what is uncomfortable or to speak up about the devastation the US Bureau of Reclamation is visiting on Klamath River salmon.

How sad.

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