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'The Definition of a Disaster' 

Tribes, environmentalists brace for catastrophe on the drought-plagued Klamath

click to enlarge A fast-spreading disease is killing nearly all of the juvenile salmon on the Klamath River.

Courtesy of the Yurok Tribe

A fast-spreading disease is killing nearly all of the juvenile salmon on the Klamath River.

The climate crisis looks different in different places but on the Klamath River, it looks like scores of baby salmon floating dead in the shallows.

With the Klamath Basin facing historic drought conditions, a crisis is unfolding in slow motion, day by day, on multiple fronts as the various entities that depend on Klamath water vie for what little there is of it.

"No one is winning in the Klamath Basin and what we hold sacred is being sacrificed across the board," Yurok Tribe Vice Chair Frankie Myers tweeted last week. "We must come together to find a better solution to this ongoing climate crisis or we will all go extinct together."

Water has long been a thorny and contentious issue on the Klamath, dating back more than a century to when the federal government began drawing water from the basin's shallow lakes to irrigate dry upland areas. In order to lure farmers to the area in the early 1890s to grow the crops needed to fuel a western population boom, the federal government gave homesteads around Upper Klamath Lake, promising water to irrigate fields, and a few decades later offered 1,0000-plus-acre plots in a lottery to World War II veterans as a show of gratitude. And as more and more of the wetlands, lakes and marshes surrounding Upper Klamath Lake were converted to farmland, the government also created hundreds of thousands of acres of national wildlife refuges around the basin to support the hundreds of species of native birds, ducks and geese.

All are dependent on Klamath water, as are two protected species — the federal endangered shortnose sucker — a bottom-dwelling fish that lives to be more than 30 years old in Upper Klamath Lake, which the Klamath Tribes consider central to their creation story and culture — and the threatened coho salmon that the Yurok Tribe considers intrinsically linked to their culture, diet and economy.

In a good water year, there isn't enough to go around on the Klamath and this year, the situation looks potentially catastrophic.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in 41 counties, including those along the Klamath, as conditions approach those seen nearly a decade ago when, from 2012 through 2015, California marked the driest four-year stretch since 1896. For most of Northern California, the past two years have been the second driest on record.

On April 14, the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the Klamath irrigation project, announced that farmers in the area would only get 33,000 acre-feet of water this year — the lowest allotment in its history and less than 10 percent of what farmers say they need even in drought years. Less than a month later, the bureau reversed course and announced the "A" Canal servicing those farmers would remain entirely dry for the year, blaming an "insufficiency" of the expected water supply.

The Klamath Water Users Association immediately issued a press release expressing "grave disappointment" with the announcement and warning of widespread consequences, from infrastructure damage and dust storms to mental health issues for farm families.

But the same bureau also included grave news for the Yurok Tribe and others dependent on Klamath salmon, as the agency said that plans to release surface flushing flows — or bursts of water that flush parasites from the water system and decrease chances of widespread fish disease — were also being reversed.

"Right now, the Klamath River is full of dead and dying fish on the Yurok Reservation," Myers said in a press release after the bureau's decision. "This disease (Ceratonova Shasta) will kill most of the baby salmon in the Klamath, which will impact fish runs for many years to come. For salmon people, a juvenile fish kill is an absolute worst-case scenario."

Prior to the bureau's decision, the Klamath Tribes' efforts to protect the sucker fish were dealt a blow when a federal judge denied an effort to retain more water in Upper Klamath Lake by reducing downriver releases.

"The bureau cannot control the current hydrologic conditions; they can only work within these natural limitations," the judge wrote in his ruling. "The bureau is not responsible for the unprecedented drought this year."

But even without reduced downriver flows, conditions on the Klamath already look dire. A Yurok Tribe press release detailed how the tribe's fisheries department monitors the river for the deadly pathogen known as C. shasta, catching live fish in screw traps to test them. In the two weeks prior, the press releases stated, more than 70 percent of the juvenile Chinook salmon pulled from the traps were dead. In some upriver traps, as many as 97 percent of the juvenile fish had C. shasta and would be dead within days. Myers recently posted a short video to his Twitter account showing dead juvenile salmon floating along the Klamath River's banks by the dozen.

Adding urgency to the situation is that groundwater extraction has increased along its tributaries, as well, with the Yurok Tribe warning that it is likely there will be insufficient flows on the Scott River for salmon to reach spawning grounds.

"We are watching a massive fish kill unfold in real time," said Yurok Fisheries Department Director Barry McCovey Jr. "The juvenile fish kill will limit salmon production for many years to come. It will also negatively impact many other species, ranging from orcas to osprey, because salmon play such an essential role in the overall ecosystem."

The Hoopa Valley Tribe, meanwhile, sent out a scathing May 12 press release after the Biden administration indicated it would stay the course in defending a lawsuit the tribe brought against the Trump administration. The lawsuit alleges former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt violated cost and environmental protections in dolling out water contracts to Westlands Water District, which depends on diversions from the Trinity River to irrigate farmlands in the Central Valley. Less water flowing down the Trinity River ultimately means less water in the lower Klamath River, of which the Trinity is a tributary. Attorneys representing the government told a federal judge earlier this month they intend to continue the previous administration's defense of the case.

"The cruel indifference of the Trump administration's corruption has reached our homeland," Hoopa Valley Tribal Chair Byron Nelson Jr. said in a press release. "Left unchecked, it will destroy the fishery on which our people have relied as the foundation of our culture, religion and economy since time immemorial."

Nelson later noted that while "staffers made the wrong decision," he has faith in Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — the first Native secretary in the department's history — to do what's right and reverse course.

"We are confident that once Secretary Haaland reviews what happened ... she will see that this attack on Hoopa is really an attack on all Indian Country and those who seek the environmental justice promised by President Biden," he said.

Moving forward, tribal leaders and environmentalists say a large-scale curtailment of agricultural water use throughout the Central Valley — possibly through the buyback of water rights — is essential to getting enough water running through the Klamath and Trinity rivers to restore fish populations to health. But there appear to be no easy answers to the immediate problem.

"What Klamath Basin communities are facing right now is the definition of a disaster," Myers said in the press release. "It is also the new normal. Substantial water shortages are a long-predicted symptom of climate change."

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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