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Stick game — Is the Klamath River headed for disaster, again? 

click to enlarge Photo by Yulia Weeks
  • Photo by Yulia Weeks

The water in the Klamath is just right for swimming. That is, unless you’re a salmon, in which case it may be the perfect temperature for another fish kill.

At least that’s what Keith Parker of the Yurok Tribe is saying. Parker sent out an e-mail alert last week in which he reported that the water temperature a few miles up from the mouth of the river was 76.2 degrees Fahrenheit at midnight on July 9. He wrote in bold letters: “WE ARE HEADED FOR DISASTER AGAIN ... IF SOMETHING ISN’T DONE IMMEDIATELY.”

However, the scene last Sunday in the town of Requa at the Klamath estuary was far from apocalyptic. Motorboats and rowboats dotted the river’s surface. A Yurok father and his daughter drifted listlessly in a rowboat beside a net in the water, waiting for their catch to come to them. Where the Klamath and the Pacific Ocean crash stubbornly into one another, a large rock the Yurok call Oregos, which watches over the confluence of fresh and salt water, stood like a sentinel, while across from it two fishermen cast their drift nets out into the brackish surf.

Arnie Nova, the lead fisheries technician for the Yurok Tribe, said he hadn’t heard about the temperature going up. But, he said, there was a weekend-long Brush Dance that was still going on, on the south side of the estuary.

The Brush Dance had been organized to heal a sick child. Last year, the Yurok held a Brush Dance to heal the Klamath River. Jim McQuillen, education director for the Yurok tribe, said that even though this weekend’s dance wasn’t specifically for the river, he still “heard a lot of prayers for the water” on Saturday night.

That’s because the river is always on the tribe’s minds, mostly because of the salmon, which Yurok elder Walt Lara describes as “a tie between us and the Creator in the past.”

Nova’s promise of a Brush Dance didn’t exactly come through. Those who hadn’t already packed up and left were cleaning up trash or munching on leftover elk meat. In one corner of the camp, members of two tribes -- the Yurok and Hoopa Valley -- played Indian cards, a game which looks like a combination of pick-up sticks and poker. The challenge is for one player to guess in which hand his opponent is holding a particular stick, one marked with a black ring. The game is played for money, which is spread out in large and small denominations on the ground between the players, each bill weighted down under a small stone.

The players sing songs as they play, and the audience cajoles or encourages from the sides. Youngsters rub the players’ backs to give them good luck. There is no strategy involved; the game, it turns out, is left entirely to lady luck.

A stone’s throw away, the Klamath River begs the question: How much of the salmon’s future is also a matter of things beyond our control?

“Things are going to resolve on those dams and stuff, but it might take 15 or 20 years,” Lara said, referring to the four PacifiCorp dams that may or may not come out depending on what the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decides. “Them salmon are tough. You see them salmon beating their heads to get through [the dams] ... It’s a sad thing that they didn’t put fish ladders up there in the first place so the salmon could get through. It’s hard to believe that you catch hell for shooting a dog with a BB,” Lara said, his voice changing from tired to angry, “but you can goddamn build a dam and kill thousands of fish without nobody doing no damn thing about it.”

On the way back to the docks, Nova took a detour past the spit of beach that extends to the mouth of the river . Keith Parker was lifting his anchor off the beach and carrying it over to his motorboat when Nova pulled up to ask him if he’d heard anything about the high water temperature. Heard anything? He was the one who sent out the alert.

“We’re headed for disaster.” He explained. “This is the middle of July, is all it is, and we’ve got water temperatures of 76.2 degrees. What’s it going to be like in the fall when the fall run comes in?”

When Parker saw how high the water temperature was, he called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries division (NOAA Fisheries) in Arcata. “I figured we needed to go after the base of the fire,” he said. “Everyone seems to be going after the flames and going after the farmers, whereas they’re [NOAA Fisheries] the ones that make the biological opinions that control the flows from Iron Gate and Lewiston.”

But what he heard wasn’t very reassuring: “The supervisor at NOAA, Irma Lagomarsino, said, ‘We realize there’s a problem and we are redoing the biological opinion that will change the flows.’ And I said, ‘Roughly how long will that take?’ She said, ‘Our flow study takes about two years.’ I said, ‘Well, we have like two days.’”

Parker said he had caught eight salmon the day before in the estuary and none of them had sea lice on them, which according to him is a bad sign. “I catch salmon at Blue Creek, which is 14 miles upriver, and they still have sea lice on them,” he said. It’s the heat that’s causing the lice to fall off. And that’s not the only problem. Half the fish he caught were already turning dark. Usually, he said, “They’re bright chromers for the whole lower river.” Also, “a couple of them had that smell that they get in the late fall when they’ve been in the river too long, because they’re decomposing.” He blames it all on the increased water temperature.

Jim Simondet, a biologist at NOAA Fisheries in Arcata, attributed the unusually hot water to “extremely high ambient temperatures in the basin” last week.

Parker, on the other hand, blames the high water temperature on the low flows, as water is diverted from the river to the farmers upstream. But Simondet preferred not to point fingers. “You need to take a look at the whole basin. You need to have a basin-wide perspective,” he said. “Everyone is looking for the silver bullet.”

Simondet said that this year is no different from other dry years. In fact, he added, “The flows out of Iron Gate dam are proportionately higher than the average flow for this time of year.” They are a little over 1,000 cubic feet per second versus a mean flow of 760 cubic feet per second.

And as for whether or not another fish kill is imminent, Simondet pointed out that the flows are much higher now than they were around the same time in 2002. Still, he admitted, “We do have poor water quality conditions.”

As Keith Parker navigated his motorboat upriver, he pointed out a massive, old bridge that was knocked down in the ’64 flood. The law of this river, it seems, is feast or famine. Either, there isn’t enough water, or there’s too much. It’s all a big gamble.

As for which hand is holding the stick with the black ring around it -- the one that will win the basin farmers their much-needed water and the Yurok fishermen their precious salmon -- there may be no strategy for finding that out. But for Yurok tribesmen like Keith Parker, there is reason to believe that the river is giving us signs that cannot be ignored.

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Japhet Weeks

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