Thursday, September 19, 2013

Klamath Disaster Roulette: Waterfowl and Eagles are the latest casualties

While media attention focuses obsessively on impending disasters, Klamath reality is that there is always another crisis or two simmering below the surface of the Klamath River Basin's waters. Often the next crisis bubbles up even as the previous one is winding down.

This summer of yet another drought year (they seem to be coming more often these days), media and public attention was focused on the large number of salmon expected to return to the Klamath River. The Hoopa and Yurok Tribes, in particular, called attention to low flows and poor water quality – conditions which, when combined with a large salmon run, led to a dramatic die-off of adult salmon in the Lower Klamath River in 2002. 

Each tribe called for the Bureau of Reclamation to release more water from Trinity Dam into the South Fork of the Klamath (aka the Trinity River) in order to stave off a fish kill. Others called for complementary releases from Iron Gate Dam so that adult salmon entering the North Fork of the Klamath (aka the Mainstem above Weitchpec) would not be enticed to ascend the River only to die in the low flow and poor water quality conditions found in the North Fork (Mainstem).

    Agriculture in the Upper Basin, Shasta Valley and Scott Valley is the
#1 source of Klamath River nutrient and temperature pollution

The Bureau of Reclamation responded to calls for Trinity Dam releases but delivered a silent rebuke to those calling for increased flows from Iron Gate Dam. Increasing flows from Iron Gate would have required a reduction in irrigation water delivery within Reclamation's Klamath Project. Armed with a new biological opinion granting the Agency “flexibility” to cut flows below biological opinion “minimums” (sic), Reclamation, which has always served the interests of federal irrigators above all else, simply ignored the request for release of more Klamath River Water downstream to avoid a fish kill.

Then came a spate of arson and lightning fires on the Mid-Klamath; soon smoke was blanketing much of the Basin. The fires caused road, trail and wilderness closures and evacuation orders; the fire's smoke also lowered the temperature of Mainstem (North Fork) water a full ten degrees! The smoke blocked so much solar radiation in some watersheds that streamflow was observed to increase – although the rise was not apparent in river and major tributary hydrographs.

By the end of August, rain and sustained higher humidity had tamed the fires, lifting the blanket of smoke. By then, however, shorter days and cooler air temperature assured that the worst water quality conditions would not return. While the salmon run is still not over and water quality is still not good, the threat of an adult fish kill has receded. Through a combination of nature's beneficence and serendipity, the Klamath River Basin had avoided another disaster...just barely.

The next crisis

Even as attention was focused on the feared fish kill, another crisis was developing. Relying on an Interior Department Solicitor's Opinion from the 1990s, Reclamation officials were dewatering the oldest and most important of the Klamath River Basin's eight national wildlife refuges.

Dewatered permanent marsh on Lower Klamath NWR, July 2013