Viewpoints: Ten Years After Fish Kill, California and Oregon Must Make Salmon a Priority

Leonard Masten, Sacramento Bee
November 14, 2012

Ten years ago thousands of adult salmon died in the Klamath River when extremely low flows ordered by the Bush administration created lethal conditions for fish. This year, as we celebrate the first good run of salmon since the fish kill, let’s remember the 10 years of advocacy that got us here, and consider possible perils.

Proposed projects like Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta won’t help.

The water these tunnels will send to Southern California could siphon supplies from the Klamath via diversions of its largest tributary – the Trinity River. What’s more, water planning on the Klamath proves the threats to the ailing watershed are far from over.

In 2002 the Bush administration ordered low flows in the Klamath to appease farmers. The result: about 68,000 dead adult salmon.

The fish kill led to a decade of suffering in California and Oregon’s fish-dependent communities, which rely on the Klamath salmon run. Low runs of Klamath salmon led to economic disasters and left people unable to support their families.

Klamath River tribes, other community members and coastal fishermen mourned this tragedy and began to fight harder than ever for the salmon, and the cultures and jobs they support. There has been positive change since.

In the last decade we saw the beginning of large-scale restoration on the Trinity River, the Klamath’s largest tributary; the movement to take down four dams owned by Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp. in the Klamath River; and efforts to restore watersheds and the people who depend on them. In 2010 PacifiCorp committed to taking out their antiquated dams to aid salmon.

This year, as a result of good ocean conditions, an estimated 378,000 salmon returned to the Klamath.

These salmon lead to a boom for coastal fishing communities in a poor economy and a large salmon allotment for struggling tribes.

This salmon run was facing conditions similar to 2002 until the government heeded the advice of tribes, fishermen and scientists, and allocated more water to avoid another fish kill.

As we enjoy the fruits of our victories let us remember the fish that died in 2002, and those who have fought for the salmon.

There is no guarantee we will see more years like this unless we stay committed to restoration and increased flows on the Klamath and Trinity rivers.

Backward steps like Brown’s proposed peripheral tunnels, and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, threaten the Trinity flows. The Trinity is the only out-of-basin watershed imported into the Sacramento Valley. It is also the largest and cleanest watershed that enters the Klamath.

The tunnels could increase the demand to send the Trinity’s water to Southern California, reversing the biggest win the Klamath salmon have seen.

Unfortunately, it was not until after the 2002 fish kill that a 30-year struggle for the Trinity’s water was resolved and 48 percent of historical flows were returned to the river. Up to 90 percent of the river had been diverted south.

Humboldt County, a fish-dependent county, recently came out against the BDCP because it does not account for the Trinity’s – and the Klamath’s – water needs or Humboldt County’s water rights, which it plans to use for salmon.

It is also essential to salmon survival that PacifiCorp stand by its promise to take out the Klamath dams and stop stalling with proposed legislation. Dam relicensing, which occurs every 50 years, provides an opportunity to surrender the dams’ licenses though public processes.

This could have happened years ago; instead, dam removal is stalled by expensive legislation that compromises flow for salmon and water rights for Indians. The current proposal to lower fall flows in the Klamath also threatened salmon.

The communities that depend on salmon cannot let bureaucracy and inaction return us to 2002. Let us remember the dead fish that blanketed the shores of the Klamath by taking action for our communities and rivers.

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