A California state agency has blamed the federal government for the deaths of 33,000 salmon and steelhead trout in the Klamath River in September because it diverted “too much water for farmers” last year without leaving “enough flow for the fish.”

According to a Los
Angeles Times
report Monday, the California Department of Fish and Game, in a
63-page study released Friday concluded that “too many migrating fish crowded into a depleted river, allowing the spread of two naturally occurring parasites that destroy the gills of fish. The salmon and steelhead subsequently died of asphyxiation.”

The study also warned that unless the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation increases flows in coming years, “there is a substantial risk for future fish kills on the Klamath River,” the Times said. The bureau is the federal agency responsible for overseeing agricultural water diversions from the Klamath.

The release of the report is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga over allocation of water from the 300-mile long Klamath River that flows from Oregon through northern California to the Pacific Ocean. Should it be used to irrigate farmland or left in lakes and rivers for the benefit of three fishes listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service? The situation gained nationwide attention in April 2001 when a federal judge ordered a complete ban on all water normally destined for some 1,400 farmers of the Klamath River Basin, a large area straddling the Oregon-California state line.

The farmers lost most of their crops, and some went bankrupt. The land – including several wildlife refuges in the area – became a dustbowl.

WorldNetDaily reported,
the farmers and their allies staged several publicity-grabbing events to keep public attention focused on their plight and tried several legal maneuvers. The Bush administration reversed its direction. A 10-year plan was developed that allowed the farmers their normal allotment in 2002.

The Department of Fish and Game claims that was a mistake.

To reach their conclusions department biologists said they eliminated other factors that could have killed the fish, including drought, a late summer heat wave and a possible spill of toxics into the river. They found the only difference in the Klamath River in the fall of 2002 compared to other dry years was that the number of salmon returning for their annual spawning run was high and the amount of water in the river was low.

Biologist David Vogel, who worked for 14 years for the Fishery Research and
Fishery Resources Divisions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before
starting his own environmental consulting firm, Natural Resources Scientists, in
1990, is sharply critical of the report – not only
its conclusions, but its methodology. He said he has not prepared a
point-by-point analysis and rebuttal, but will so in the near future.

Vogel told WorldNetDaily he was “shocked” and “astounded” at the department’s conclusion that the fish kill was due to insufficient water.

“Let me put it this way – if it is [the cause], you certainly can’t use Fish and Game’s report to make that conclusion,” said Vogel, adding that the most “striking feature” of the report is that “the Department of Fish and Game is building a strong case for its lack of scientific objectivity.”

“They’re trying to build a case – and I believe it’s a very weak case – by trying to attack low-flow releases from Irongate Dam without looking at all the factors in a holistic fashion that is always necessary in scientific analysis,” he remarked. Irongate Dam in California, 65 river miles south of Upper Klamath Lake, is
the main dam on the Klamath River. From there, the river flows in a winding
path a further 190 river miles to the Pacific Ocean.

“There’s a lot of speculation and a lot of innuendo in their report, and a lot of technical information that Fish and Game did not include,” said Vogel. “Notably lacking from the report is an analysis of the water temperatures that were present in the Upper Klamath River downstream of Irongate Dam during the time of the fish kill,” he explained, adding that the information was available.

“I did have water temperature thermographs in the Upper Klamath River downstream of Irongate Dam and I did examine the data – which clearly demonstrate that the water temperatures from Irongate Dam in the main stem of the Upper Klamath were within lethal range for salmon.”

Lethal range

“Lethal range,” he emphasized. “They were too high. So Fish and Game attempts to build an argument for increased flow below Irongate Dam during early September, but the problem with that is that even if the flow had been increased the water temperatures were unsuitably warm for salmon in the upper river. In other words, there was no place for the fish to go.”

“It doesn’t take much increase in water temperature to have catastrophic effects on fish,” he added. “Just a couple of degrees plus or minus can make it or break it for fish.”

Vogel said that even though Fish and Game did not consider it, there is information in the report itself that demonstrates that water temperature was unusually high during the time of the fish kill. However, this information was “distorted,” by “lumping” extremes together to create monthly averages, which gave an illusion that water and air temperatures for the first part of September were lower than in fact they were.

As he explained, “They look at average air temperatures and average water temperatures for the entire month of September, which is very inappropriate because during September, in that particular watershed, both water temperatures and air temperatures declined precipitously by the end of the month. Nevertheless, they lumped the entire 30 days of September to attempt to construct a statement about potential effects of air conditions on water temperatures. As it turns out, based on my analysis, there was a very
dramatic drop in both air temperatures and water temperatures at the end of the month.”

“They obfuscate those facts by trying to massage and average all of the data together, and you simply can’t do that,” he said.

And that’s not all. Warm water temperatures foster an increase in the number of death-causing parasites. A major contributing factor, then, in the fish kill would be the warmer water temperatures – which Fish and Game did not take into account, said Vogel.

Besides the lack of water and air temperature analysis, Vogel said he was “astounded” by other omissions and conclusions by Fish and Game – one in particular that “jumped right out at me.”

“They [Fish and Game] state that the fish kill began Sept. 19, and yet they say that no [water] analysis was done of any potential toxic substances until September 26 – seven days later. So they conclude that toxic substances could not have caused the fish kill, when in reality there’s no way in the world you could make that conclusion when the samples were taken a full week later after the fish kill was under way. I was astounded at that.”

Vogel said he was also disappointed in the report because “overall Fish and Game is a good scientific agency, with a good track record in California.”

“We were hopeful that we would acquire an objective, scientific analysis, and this report is clearly deficient in that regard,” he said.

But fishermen and environmentalists hailed the study as validation of their ongoing arguments that more water should be allowed downstream and to the ocean, the Times reported. Farming interests said the report repeated previous statements made by state wildlife officials with little science to back it up. Officials with the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said additional study of the fish kill was needed.

Three more studies on just how much water is needed in the Klamath are under way. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also examining reasons for the fish kill, Service spokeswoman Patricia Foulk told the Times.

“If we do come up with a different set of reasons, I can assure you we’ll have strong scientific evidence to back up those conclusions,” she said.

The Times said that the Bureau of Reclamation plans to divide water the same as it did in 2002, but critics of the agency hope the new studies will persuade the Bureau to leave more water for fish in the Klamath and its largest tributary, the Trinity.

Bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken said Saturday that the agency usually makes its decision on water allocations by early April and that the new studies would be taken into consideration.

Related stories:

Destination: Klamath Falls

Feds reject plea for ‘God Squad’

‘Us now, you’re next,’ say desperate farmers

Related column

Tightening the screws


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