Friday, November 14, 2014

UPDATE: Coroner Announces Retirement, Supes Push Toward Consolidation

Posted By on Fri, Nov 14, 2014 at 3:26 PM

click to enlarge News1-magnum.jpg

The board of supervisors voted unanimously today to begin the process of consolidating the sheriff’s office and coroner’s office. The board asked the county administrative officer to draft an ordinance that would fold the employees and functions of the coroner’s office into the sheriff’s department, and create one elected sheriff/coroner position.

Humboldt County has had an independently elected coroner since 1905, and has mulled consolidation at least four times in the last 35 years, according to a  staff report. The move could potentially help cash-strapped and overworked coroner’s office employees.

Coroner Dave Parris (who’s retiring in January) and Sheriff Mike Downey have expressed support for the consolidation, with Downey saying that he would not accept a temporary appointment to the coroner position.

From the report:
Of California's 58 counties, 48 will have a combined Sheriff-Coroner as of January 2015, including all of the counties adjacent to Humboldt. In fact, since the last time the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors considered this question—in 2009—two additional counties (Fresno and Marin) have voted to combine a formerly separate Coroner's Office into a consolidated Sheriff-Coroner. Of the 10 remaining counties, five have an office of Medical Examiner as permitted under Government Code Section 24010. This leaves only four counties besides Humboldt with a separate Coroner's Office not headed by a physician. In 10 of the counties having a consolidated Sheriff-Coroner, that office also includes the Public Administrator function.

Humboldt County Coroner Dave Parris announced his retirement today, just several months after being re-elected. He will leave the position at the end of January.

In his announcement, Parris said the coroner's office is severely underfunded and recommended that the office be consolidated with the sheriff's office, echoing problems the Journal wrote about here.

Parris' letter:

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Monday, November 3, 2014

Former DA Candidate Moves On

Posted By on Mon, Nov 3, 2014 at 3:22 PM

click to enlarge ELAN FIRPO
  • Elan Firpo
Former Humboldt County District Attorney candidate Elan Firpo took her first steps in a new career today, stepping in as a partner in a prominent local firm now known as Zwerdling, Bragg, Mainzer and Firpo.

“It’s a new challenge and I’m really looking forward to a new chapter,” said Firpo, who has worked as a deputy district attorney in Humboldt County for about five years.

With sitting District Attorney Paul Gallegos not seeking re-election, Firpo ran for the post in June, but finished a distant second to District Attorney-elect Maggie Fleming, who took 61 percent of the vote to Firpo’s 25 percent. Fleming is slated to take office in January. Firpo — who on the campaign trail described being a prosecutor as a “calling” and a “dream job” — declined to detail the reasons for her departure other than to say she was presented with a great opportunity and felt it was time for a change.

This leaves Fleming to take over an office with a short list of attorneys experienced in prosecuting serious and violent felonies. In a message to the Journal, Fleming said she is “fortunate” that former Assistant District Attorney Wes Keat and former Deputy District Attorney Andrew Isaac have agreed to return to the office in January to help her temporarily while she recruits new attorneys. Both are retired, so it’s unclear whether they will be returning on a full or part-time basis and for how long they have agreed to stay.

Gallegos said Firpo’s departure is a loss for the DA’s Office, but quickly added that the community is fortunate she is staying here in another capacity with a local plaintiff’s firm that does good work. “I think she’ll continue to be a credit to the legal profession in Humboldt County,” Gallegos said.

Firpo’s departure comes just weeks after her successful double murder prosecution of Bodhi Tree, who is now serving 108 years to life in state prison. Tree’s conviction wound up being Firpo’s prosecutorial swan song. She was also slated to handle the case of Gary Lee Bullock, a Garberville man accused of torturing and murdering popular St. Bernard Church Pastor Eric Freed on Jan. 1. Firpo said the hardest part of her decision to leave the office came when she called Freed’s family to tell them she’d be handing off the case.
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Monday, October 20, 2014

Supes to Discuss Jail Release Policy

Posted By on Mon, Oct 20, 2014 at 2:16 PM

click to enlarge News2-magnum.jpg
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will look over this year’s grand jury recommendations tomorrow, including the report that called for the end of Humboldt County Jail’s late night release policy.

Sheriff Mike Downey said in August that the jail would not comply with the report, and would continue to release people between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., despite community and grand jury concerns that the practice put the public and outgoing prisoners at risk.

St. Bernard Pastor Eric Freed was killed on New Year’s Day, allegedly by a Garberville man who had been released from jail hours before.

It’s unclear if the board will discuss late night releases, but county Chief Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes wrote to the supervisors a recommendation to adopt another of the grand jury’s recommendations: That the county provide transportation to outgoing inmates who were arrested 25 or more miles from the jail per California law. That means bus tickets for people arrested where the Humboldt Transit Authority services, and some other means of transportation for remote arrestees.

“The Grand Jury's recommendation to contract with Humboldt Transit Authority (HTA) requires additional financial resources and may be an option if the county's sales tax measure, Measure Z, passes in the Nov. 4, 2014 election, and the community identifies this as a priority. However, HTA is limited by its operational schedule, which is primarily daytime,” Smith-Hanes wrote.

Read more on the grand jury recommendations and the county’s jail release policy.
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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Police Promotions

Posted By on Sat, Oct 18, 2014 at 4:50 PM

click to enlarge EPD.jpg
Being a bit old school, I was put off at first. Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills was on the phone asking me to take part in a community panel that would help him decide who to promote to the position of EPD captain. The positions are critical to Mills’ plan for policing Eureka, which involves splitting the city in half geographically, with one captain responsible for the day-to-day operations of each. He said he wanted good people in place and was reshaping the department’s promotional process.

Historically, EPD promotions have been an insular affair, with testing and interviewing happening behind closed doors and including no one outside the law enforcement community. But Mills, who came from San Diego about a year ago to take over the department, was changing that, putting together three interview panels — one of community members, another of Eureka department heads and the last of law enforcement officials — in an attempt to get a more holistic feel for the candidates, and how they respond to different people and situations.

The catch for me was that large parts of the process were going to be confidential and I would have to sign a nondisclosure agreement. And, if I joined the panel, I would be asking questions provided by Mills, with only a limited opportunity to ask follow up questions. As a journalist, telling me I’m not allowed to ask my own questions and that what’s said needs to be kept secret is generally a deal breaker. Further, I believe journalists should keep their sources and subjects at arm’s length to preserve objectivity as much as possible. Things can get sticky and lines can grow blurry when you get too close, and having a hand in deciding who gets promoted in an agency I cover seemed all too close for my tastes. But, I told Mills I’d mull it over.

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Friday, October 3, 2014

Supes to Take up Campaign Finance Reform Tuesday

Posted By on Fri, Oct 3, 2014 at 4:20 PM

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The governing board for Montgomery County, Maryland, recently voted unanimously to establish a system of partial public funding for county elections.

Why do you care? Well, in case you missed it, campaign finance reform has been on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors’ front burner lately (a draft ordinance is scheduled to come before the board Tuesday afternoon), and the subject is the focus of a guest opinion piece by College of the Redwoods political science professor Ryan Emenaker.

The measure passed by the Montgomery County Council creates a matching funds system, which ponies up public money to match small donations received by a candidate. The catch is that candidates entering the public financing program will be barred from taking campaign donations from corporations or political action committees.

A story in the Washington Post credits council member Phil Andrew with being the “chief architect” of the measure, and quotes him as dubbing the measure a critical counterweight to the dominance of developer and union money in county campaigns.

“It doesn’t take money out of politics, but it helps push big money to the side,” the Post quotes Andrews as saying.

The measure is complicated, but essentially creates a tiered system of matching funds. As described in the Post, it allows a qualifying council candidate (in addition to eschewing corporate and PAC money, the candidates must also demonstrate their viability) to receive a 4-1 match for the first $50 of each contribution he or she receives, with subsequent $50 increments matched at lower rates. For example, a candidate receiving a $50 donation from Joe Citizen would then receive another $300 in public funds. A donation of $150 would return $600 in public funds, according to the Post, which adds that the measure also places a cap on the amount candidates can receive from public coffers.

The huge question in all this — the cost to taxpayers — has yet to be answered. From the Post:

“The cost to taxpayers remains unclear. It will hinge on how many candidates qualify for the public matching funds. A study by Common Cause Maryland, which supports the Andrews bill, estimated that if matching funds were available during this year’s June primary, it would have cost about $2.5 million. That price tag is almost certain to rise with the match system now in place.”

Maryland is one of about 25 states in the country that have some type of system to publicly subsidize political campaigns. The entire Post story is worth a thorough read for anyone interested in campaign finance reform.
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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

EPD Chief: Shooting Appears Justified

Posted By on Wed, Oct 1, 2014 at 3:10 PM

click to enlarge Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills takes questions from the media during a press conference on the officer involved shooting of Tommy McCain in September. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills takes questions from the media during a press conference on the officer involved shooting of Tommy McCain in September.
The preliminary findings of an ongoing multi-agency investigation indicate Eureka Police officer Stephen Linfoot was justified when he shot and killed 22-year-old Thomas “Tommy” McClain shortly after midnight on Sept. 17, Police Chief Andy Mills said at a press conference this morning.

Mills said McClain was defying officers orders and reaching for a replica handgun — a realistic looking BB gun — in his waistband when Linfoot opened fire, shooting a total of seven rounds, three of which hit McClain in the arm, chest, head and gluteus maximus.

“The events that took place in the early morning hours of Sept. 17 are tragic,” Mills said. “I have spoken with Thomas’ mother and I feel for her. We empathize with her and, to be frank, all of our hearts break for her.”

A few dozen reporters and law enforcement officers attended the press conference, which saw Mills give a fairly detailed account of shooting.

click to enlarge An aerial police photograph of the shooting scene on Allard Avenue. A dark blood stain on the dry lawn marks were McClain fell. - THADEUS GREENSON
  • Thadeus Greenson
  • An aerial police photograph of the shooting scene on Allard Avenue. A dark blood stain on the dry lawn marks were McClain fell.

The chief said his department was conducting a surveillance operation to track down a wanted fugitive who was believed to be armed and dangerous and staying in the 1600 block of Allard Avenue the night of Sept. 16. Mills said officers initially planned to break down the door at the house where the fugitive was believed to be staying in what Mills called a “high-risk” plan, but Sgt. Brian Stephens revised the plan to have two officers watching the residence from the cemetery across the street while another officer circled the block in his patrol car.

As the officers waited for the fugitive to show up, Mills said they saw a car drop three people — including McClain — off next door at McClain’s cousin’s home. They went inside, Mills said, and McClain came out to the front yard a short time later. A blue ford pickup truck then parked across the street from the house, and Mills said McClain confronted the male driver as he got out. Mills said the man later told investigators that McClain accused him of selling drugs in the neighborhood.

Mills said officers watched as the man walked down the street to another residence and McClain returned to his cousin’s front yard, where he appeared agitated and to be “puffing up,” rolling up his sleeves. The officers then saw McClain “index” a gun in his waistband, Mills said, describing the action as a “subconscious” feel of the hand to check and make sure the gun was there. “The officers noticed this,” Mills said, clarifying that the officers didn’t actually see the gun at this point but noted the movement and were concerned that if the pickup’s driver came back there could be an armed confrontation.

The officers reported what they saw to Stephens, who directed them to stay put but asked the officer patrolling the block to drive by the residence, thinking it would cause McClain to go back inside, Mills said. The officer drove by slowly, Mills continued, but McClain didn’t retreat inside. Instead, Mills said, he waited for the patrol car to pass, then was seen by officers pulling the gun from his waistband and “cycling it” to pull a bullet into the chamber. Mills said this raised the threat, and Stephens decided to drive into the area to confront McClain. Mills said Stephens pulled up in his patrol car, illuminated McClain with its spotlight, got out and began giving “clear, concise commands.” The sergeant was standing about 12 feet in front of McClain, who responded to the commands by saying, “You don’t have the right to search me,” Mills said.

At this point, Mills said Linfoot — who was in his patrol car parked in a nearby alley — sped to the scene, as the two officers conducting surveillance in the cemetery also converged on foot. Initially, Mills said that McClain complied with orders from Stephens, who had him at gunpoint, holding his gun in a “high and ready” position, meaning it was raised and trained on McClain but that Stephens didn’t have his finger on the trigger or his sights set. When McClain raised his hands, the handle of the BB gun was clearly visible on his waistband, Mills said, prompting Stephens to say: “I see the gun. Don’t touch it or I will shoot.”

click to enlarge Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills demonstrates how an officer would be holding their weapon while in the "high and ready" position during a press conference on the officer involved shooting of Tommy McCain. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills demonstrates how an officer would be holding their weapon while in the "high and ready" position during a press conference on the officer involved shooting of Tommy McCain.
Mills said McClain, for “unknown reasons,” then began lowering his hands. The officers yelled again for him to raise his hands, Mills said, and McClain complied momentarily before again lowering his hands, dropping one to the handle of the gun on his waistband. Seeing this, Linfoot opened fire. Mills said forensic testing confirmed that all of the seven shell casings found at the scene came from Linfoot’s gun, but said Stephens told investigators he too was readying to shoot when he saw McClain grab for his gun but, by the time he was ready to fire, McClain was on the ground and no longer a threat. The chief estimated the entire interaction between McClain lasted about a minute, with the shooting itself over in two seconds.

click to enlarge A police photo of the scene of the fatal shooting. Numbered white evidence markers show the locations of where California Department of Justice investigators found seven shell casings from officer Stephan Linfoot's gun. - THADEUS GREENSON
  • Thadeus Greenson
  • A police photo of the scene of the fatal shooting. Numbered white evidence markers show the locations of where California Department of Justice investigators found seven shell casings from officer Stephan Linfoot's gun.

An autopsy conducted on McClain over the weekend determined one of Linfoot’s shots hit him in the outer arm, piercing his bicep, passing through and hitting him in the chest. This, Mills said, confirms that McClain’s arm was in a downward position and not raised when he was shot. “This demonstrates that the arm could not have been in the air,” he said.

Asked if Linfoot shot to wound McClain, Mills said that when officers decide to shoot they “fire to stop the threat. Whatever it takes to stop that threat. We fire until the threat is gone.”

McClain’s gun — a Co2 action BB gun replica of a Walther PPQ handgun that Mills said is almost identical to its real counterpart — never left his waistband, Mills said, adding that officers removed it as they handcuffed him following the shooting. The BB gun, Mills said, was not loaded.

click to enlarge A police photograph of the replica handgun reportedly found on McClain. - THADEUS GREENSON
  • Thadeus Greenson
  • A police photograph of the replica handgun reportedly found on McClain.
click to enlarge Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills holds up a side by side comparison of the hilt of a Walther PPQ replica and of real Walther PPQ during a press conference on the officer involved shooting death of McCain. Mills stated that following the shooting, officers recovered a replica Walther PPQ from McCain. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills holds up a side by side comparison of the hilt of a Walther PPQ replica and of real Walther PPQ during a press conference on the officer involved shooting death of McCain. Mills stated that following the shooting, officers recovered a replica Walther PPQ from McCain.
click to enlarge The warning label on the BB gun reportedly found on McClain. - THADEUS GREENSON
  • Thadeus Greenson
  • The warning label on the BB gun reportedly found on McClain.

Family and friends of McClain — who recently moved to Humboldt County from Fresno and was working with a local roofing company — have said he was hard of hearing and may have not understood officers commands. Mills said today that the 22-year-old did have a hearing problem but that he didn’t know the extent of it. As to whether McClain understood officers’ commands, Mills said he believes McClain clearly understood the situation he was in and was initially compliant. McClain’s family and friends have also indicated he was out drinking prior to the incident, but Mills said toxicology test results have not come back yet and declined to comment further.

Mills said dash cams from the two patrol cars on scene at the time of the shooting captured some footage — including Linfoot firing his weapon — but that neither captures McClain or his interaction with officers. EPD located three civilian witnesses to the incident — including two related to McClain and one with “pro police sentiments” — but detective Ron Harpham said he doesn’t believe any them saw the actual shooting. All, he said, offered conflicting accounts of what transpired.

Moving forward, Mills said the multi-agency Critical Incident Response Team investigating the case under the direction of EPD and the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office will finish up its work and turn a full report over to the DA’s Office for review. The DA’s Office will ultimately decide whether it believes any of the officers involved violated the law. Mills said he will also conduct an internal review of the incident to determine if EPD policies were followed, and whether the policies themselves need revisions. Linfoot will remain on administrative leave until the process concludes, Mills said.

The chief met in person with McClain’s mother within days of the shooting and said he briefed her this morning on the information he was preparing to release.

During his press conference, Mills said there are those in the community that wish to vilify McClain and others who want to vilify the officers. The reality, Mills said, is that the officers made split-second decisions that are now being “evaluated in the light of day,” with the benefit of time, “in the comfort of offices and homes.” While saying EPD welcomes scrutiny of the incident, Mills said those involved — both the officers and McClain’s family — are left with a lifetime of impact.

“Decisions that are made in seconds will last for eternity,” he said. “Such is the case with police work.”

For more information on how the shooting is being investigated, see past Journal coverage here.

Editors Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Brian Stephens' name.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Eureka Will Cease Prayer Breakfasts, Pay For Lawsuit

Posted By on Fri, Sep 26, 2014 at 12:03 PM

click to enlarge Eureka.JPG
Eureka will discontinue prayer breakfasts as part of a settlement stemming from a 2013 lawsuit seeking the separation of church and local government.

The Times-Standard reports that, in addition to no longer sponsoring or endorsing the prayer breakfasts (which Mayor Frank Jager conducted specifically in his capacity as mayor), the city will pay $16,500 to cover legal costs incurred during the lawsuit. 

When the lawsuit was filed, Jager told the Journal, "If they want to sue us, fine, we'll take them on." 

Commenting on the settlement, Jager told the Times-Standard he would have preferred the city go to court over the lawsuit, but that "the council wanted to get it over with and not have this thing drag on."

The lawsuit also sought to stop invocations before city council meetings (a practice that has been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court) but was denied by a local judge. Attorney Peter Martin, who brought the lawsuit, says he will appeal that decision.
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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Feds Act to Avoid Fish Kill

Posted By on Tue, Sep 16, 2014 at 2:27 PM

  • Photo Courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation
  • Lewiston Dam
In response to the recent discovery of a deadly parasite infecting salmon in the Klamath River, the Bureau of Reclamation began today sending another round of emergency flows down the Trinity River with the hopes of staving off a massive fish kill.

After initially refusing to release additional water from Lewiston Dam into the Trinity, and by turn the Klamath, the bureau reversed course last month after dire warnings from biologists and local tribes that conditions in the lower Klamath River were eerily similar to 2002, when more than 50,000 salmon died of gill rot as flows in the river dwindled and water temperatures increased. But biologists worried the releases came too late, and this week reported finding a significant number of salmon infected with parasites.

In response, the bureau has begun releasing additional emergency flows into the river systems, hoping more water will flush the parasites out to sea and create more space for the fish to circulate. Fish already infected with the parasite will likely die, but the hope is that the extra flows will keep additional salmon from becoming infected.
In response to today’s releases, the Yurok Tribe issued a press release praising the federal agency’s quick action.

“While there has not been a confirmation that any fish have died as a result of (the parasite), we are extremely concerned that there could be another fish kill in the coming weeks if additional flows are not released,” Yurok Tribal Chairman Thomas O’Rourke Sr. said in the release. “We appreciate that the Bureau of Reclamation heeded our request to send emergency flows down the Klamath River.”

As with prior releases of additional water, the public is warned to take caution around the rivers, as they will be running faster, fuller and colder than usual.

See the tribe’s full press release below, followed by one from the Hoopa Valley Tribe warning of dire conditions:

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Judge Denies Bid To Stop Trinity Water Releases

Posted By on Wed, Aug 27, 2014 at 5:47 PM

click to enlarge There was a Hoopa rally at Lewiston Dam today. - PHOTO COURTESY VIV ORCUTT
  • Photo courtesy Viv Orcutt
  • There was a Hoopa rally at Lewiston Dam today.
A federal judge with the Eastern District Court of California today denied a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction sought by Central Valley Project water users to stop extra releases of water from the Trinity reservoir at Lewiston Dam into the Trinity River.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation approved those flow augmentation releases last week, and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and Westlands Water District sued to stop them several days later. The two had another suit already outstanding with the court over emergency flows last year. In his decision, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill talked about both cases. He said the emergency releases for salmon in the Trinity do not decrease the amount of water the plaintiff's users are getting from the project (which already, in these drought conditions, is zero for agriculture users and curtailed some for wildlife refuges). He acknowledged that releases into the Trinity this year likely could lower the reservoir enough that next year's the water supply could be impacted, meaning continued short supply (already in effect) for the plaintiff's water users. But, he said, "the balance of the harms does not warrant an injunction at this time."

"Even if the Court were prepared immediately to issue a final ruling on the merits in favor of Plaintiffs, an injunction would not be automatic," O'Neill wrote. "The potential harm to the Plaintiffs from the potential, but far from certain, loss of added water supply in 2015 does not outweigh the potentially catastrophic damage that 'more likely than not' will occur to this year’s salmon runs in the absence of the 2014 [flow augmentation releases]."

You can read the decision here: 


And here's a video showing before-and-after the releases:

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

SECOND UPDATE:Trinity Will Get More Water; Suit Filed

Posted By on Tue, Aug 26, 2014 at 2:46 PM

  • Photo courtesy the Bureau of Reclamation
  • Lewiston Dam
SECOND UPDATE: On Monday, Aug. 25, around 5 p.m., the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority filed for a temporary restraining order in Fresno Superior Court to stop the increased flows. Dan Nelson, executive director of the water authority, said Tuesday that the issue is much the same as last year when his agency and the Westlands Water District filed for a restraining order after the bureau approved emergency releases into the Trinity: balancing uses.

“We understand there are competing demands and that there are legitimate uses for this water,” Nelson said. “We don’t think the bureau, in its decision-making process, has taken into consideration all the impacts.”

Nelson also said the bureau can’t keep declaring emergencies each year, but instead should for once and all put together a long-term plan, with environmental documentation. He envisions getting all of the Trinity water stakeholders together, including tribes and water districts, to craft the plan, and says his agency has been asking the bureau to facilitate this for the past five years. Instead, the bureau seems to be going it alone on the long-term planning.

“We’d like the opportunity of sitting down with the tribes and working out a mutual agreeable solution,” Nelson said.

A judge will set a hearing on the restraining order request, and the bureau will have a chance to file a brief in response.

FIRST UPDATE: The San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority likely will file for a temporary restraining order to stop the increased flows granted by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, according to a KQED report. And in a statement, the water authority complains that its water users — mostly agriculture lands, but also some municipal, industrial, and wildlife refuges — could use some extra water, too, but have been denied; accuses the Trinity River Management Council and the bureau of neglecting to set aside water for emergencies; and refers to the 2002 fish die-off in the Klamath River as a "once in history" occasion and  says that conditions in the river this year do not match those of that year. 

"The only condition that has changed is the increase in volume in the voices of a few special interests," says the statement.


Tribal leaders praised the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s decision today to let more water out of Trinity River reservoir to improve conditions for the fall run of Chinook salmon entering the lower Klamath River, where drought-induced low flows and resulting warm water temperatures threaten a repeat of 2002’s massive fish kill. The emergency flows start tomorrow, Saturday Aug. 23.

They also said they hoped the action — a reversal of the July 30 decision by the bureau not to release more flows — has come soon enough.

“We are happy that the B.O.R.’s decision came out in favor of fish,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr., chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “They did the right thing.”

Craig Tucker, Klamath coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said the Karuk Tribal Council is "extremely thrilled” with the decision to release emergency flows but hopes the decision didn’t come too late.
click to enlarge 2002 fish kill on the Klamath River - NORTH COAST JOURNAL
  • North Coast Journal
  • 2002 fish kill on the Klamath River
More than 60,000 fall Chinook died in 2002 as a result of low flows and warm water temperatures. The warm, stagnant water fostered growth of parasites and pathogens that spread rapidly among salmon as they crowded into deeper pools and at the mouths of tributaries, seeking cooler water.

Susan Masten, vice chair of the Yurok Tribe, also expressed pleasure at the bureau’s decision but concern that it could be too late.

“We have seen a few fish die already, and we’ve seen an increase in algae in the river and the water temperatures are too high,” she said.

Masten says the conditions in the river “are much worse today” than they were in 2002. She was tribal chair in 2002, and says the tribe’s scientists had warned the bureau back then that conditions were bad enough to cause a fish kill — to no avail. This year, she says, the tribe began pleading with the bureau as early as January to let more water into the Trinity (which flows to the Klamath), noting we are in a third year of drought. The Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley tribes and others have met regularly with the bureau since to try to agree on a flow schedule. And protesters have further raised awareness and alarm.

Masten said the 2002 fish kill sharpened the tribe’s scientific understanding of the conditions that lead to such disasters, including the knowledge that, once dead fish start showing up, things can get out of hand fast. The tribe knew this, she said, and tried to convince the bureau early on that this could be a bad year and not to wait until fish started dying.

In a conference call this morning, Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Regional Director David Murillo said the bureau based its July 30 decision not to release more flows into the river system on science and on what the bureau knew at the time. Then, after monitoring, more discussions with water users and with tribal scientists, and a tour of the river, the bureau developed a better sense of the conditions and realized they were, indeed, not just similar to those in 2002, but “unprecedented.” Murillo noted, among them, low flows, warm water, fish crowding into cooler pools, toxin-producing blue-green algae growth and “observations of acutely stressed and lethargic fish.” Don Reck, with the bureau, added that “there was just a lot of new information that was brought to everyone’s attention.” And that’s why the bureau finally agreed that increased flows were necessary "to help reduce the potential for a large-scale fish die-off."

Masten said she's pleased the bureau accepted the tribe's scientific findings. "Hopefully it will be soon enough," she said. "It still will take a couple of days for the water to hit the lower Klamath."

Mike Belchik, senior fisheries biologist with the Yurok Fisheries program, said the tribe has tracked fish numbers since 1998 and noted patterns in behavior. He said that, every year, thousands of fish use the cold waters near Blue Creek, the largest tributary to the Klamath on the Yurok Reservation and the largest cold-water refuge from warm river water in the Klamath and Trinity rivers. And, most years, these fish are predominantly juveniles. But in 2002, thousands of adult fish used it for an extended period of time leading up to the fish kill. And that's happening again this year, Belchik said. 

In the conference call, Ron Milligan, who is the bureau’s Central Valley Operations manager, said the increase of flows from the reservoir into the Klamath River system would not cause a decrease in flows into Clear Creek and the Sacramento River, so there would be no harm to salmon, farmers or other water users in the Sacramento Valley. Instead, the bureau would just draw the reservoir down — and hope that next year is not another critically dry year.

Allie Hostler, Two Rivers Tribune editor, asked if the bureau has a time frame for developing a long-term plan in order to avoid future crises like this. Murillo said he doesn't but that the bureau is working on it and would “hopefully wrap up a plan soon.”

Here’s the new flow release schedule:

Aug. 23: At 7 a.m, the Bureau will begin increasing releases from Lewiston Dam, from 450 cubic feet per second to about 950 cfs to achieve a flow rate of 2,500 cfs in the lower Klamath River.

Aug. 25: At 7 a.m., releases from Lewiston Dam will begin increasing to about 2,450 cfs to achieve a flow rate of about 4,000 cfs in the lower Klamath River. This release will be maintained for about 24 hours before returning to about 950 cfs. Releases will remain at about 950 cfs, as necessary, to maintain lower Klamath River flows at 2,500 cfs until about Sunday, Sept. 14.

The Bureau promised that river and fishery conditions will be continuously monitored, and those conditions will determine the duration of increased releases. It also cautioned people to be careful around the rivers as flows ramp up.
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