Klamath Fish Kill Points to Ongoing Water Crisis

The drought across the West this year has brought a litany of ecological disasters to bear—and it’s time to chalk up one more. Earlier this year, the Klamath Fish Health Assessment Team warned of a major fish kill affecting the Klamath Basin.

The area stretches across the Oregon-California border, and the worst fears of biologists are a repeat of the 2002 fish kill that left thousands of salmon dead due to a parasite called Ich.

The combination of low water, decreased currents and warm temperatures results in fewer cold areas for salmon to congregate. The fish pack consolidates into smaller areas, making it easier for the Ich parasite to transfer from fish to fish. Jerri Bartholomew, professor of microbiology at Oregon State University, said that nearly 100% of juvenile chinook are infected, although not all will die.

Yet even in 2014, the parasite came very near catastrophic levels. Fisheries, conservationists, and tribes that monitor and attempt to curb outbreaks have had ample warning, but their hands are largely tied due to a severe shortage of reserve water that could help flush the rivers.

Solutions are dependent on water shortages and what the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation decides to do with the water they have. As Jeff Barnard of The Associated Press recalled, when water was diverted to flush the parasite out of rivers in 2001, farmers in the Klamath Reclamation Project became upset at their shortage of irrigation, which triggered confrontations with federal marshals. In 2002, irrigation was restored, and 62,000 salmon were killed. There’s simply not enough to go around.

That water is released from the Link River Dam and, as the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath District Manager Therese O’Rourke told Oregon Public Broadcasting, the warming weather and lack of snowpack already means farmers are getting only half of the water they need.

Exacerbating this is the slow progress of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, a series of restoration agreements made in 2010 between sovereign tribes, fishing groups, farmers, and federal and state agencies. They cover the removal of at least three dams (and a possible fourth) owned by PacifiCorp. This would both “restore the river and give farmers more predictability about water.” Of course, the one thing all sides can agree on is stalled in Congress due to the opposition of House Republicans.

How did the tribes and farmers come together after their confrontations in 2001 and 2002? Simple. After fixed-price contracts expired, PacifiCorp hiked their power bills by a thousand percent. Suddenly, there was a common enemy. When the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled in 2007 that fish ladders would be necessary to keep the dams in operation, PacifiCorps judged the cost of building and maintaining these to be more expensive than simply removing the dams.

The removal is no small task. It would be the largest dam removal project in U.S. history, costing over $250 million. Nonetheless, it would open up 420 miles of habitat and restore salmon runs by 80 percent. A 2013 Department of the Interior report describes the financial benefit of removing the dams outweighs the cost of keeping them by a ratio of 48-to-1. New legislation is tied up in the Congressional assemblies of Oregon and California, as well as both houses of the United States Congress.

For now, the Yurok Tribe takes a weekly survey of fish to help determine potential concentrations of the parasite, while KFHAT and Klamath Reclamation Project irrigators petition the Bureau of Reclamation for more water—even though there’s not enough for both organizations. As the fight goes on, they sit and wait for government bodies to stop dragging their heels.

Does a water crisis already affect you? Are you upset that it takes our legislatures so long to put an agreement into effect?




Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.