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Bureau to boost river flows, but downstream tribes still worried


Published May 12, 2004


Federal officials are trying to calm worries about low flows on the Klamath River by putting more water than required downstream, but Indian tribes in the lower Klamath Basin are still concerned about impacts on fish.

"We are sickened," said Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, after a discussion with Bureau officials Tuesday.

Citing dwindling inflow to Upper Klamath Lake, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation switched the water year type from "below average" to "dry" Friday. The change means there will be less water going down the river this summer, unless there is a change in weather patterns.

Dave Sabo, manager of the Bureau's Klamath Project, said the agency is tapping its "water bank" to boost flows in the river. The bank includes water made available through idling of farmlands or use of well water for irrigation.

"We are going to try to figure out how much water we can let down, and still maintain the lake's level and irrigation supplies," he said.

With the switch in year types, the flow requirements from Iron Gate Dam in Siskiyou County for the second two weeks of May drop from 1,043 cubic feet per second to 731 cfs. Sabo said the Bureau is going to try to keep the flows close to 1,200 cfs for the remainder of the month by utilizing large groundwater pumps.

But those flows still aren't enough to protect salmon, Fletcher said.

Representatives of the Yurok Tribe, along with the Klamath, Hoopa Valley and Karuk tribes and the Intertribal Fish and Water Commission, had a conference call Tuesday with Bureau, U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials.

Fletcher was not pleased with what he heard from the Bureau.

"The bottom line is the Bureau has a responsibility to protect our fish, and they are not doing it," he said.

The Yurok tribe has a reservation in Northern California that flanks both sides of the lower Klamath River. The tribe and other downstream interests blame low flow releases from Iron Gate for the death of about 34,000 salmon in late summer of 2002.

Fletcher said there is ample evidence that the flows proposed by the bureau are too low to protect salmon.

"We are going to continue to raise our concern, but it looks like they have made their mind up and decided to kill fish," Fletcher said.

With the change in water year type, flows could be lower this summer than they were two years ago, he added.

The California Department of Fish and Game is preparing to release 6 million juvenile salmon from its hatchery at Iron Gate Dam.

Sabo said the Bureau wants to maintain higher flows to aid the fish released by the Department of Fish and Game.

"We don't want the flows to be low and have them standing there with dead fish in their hands," he said.

But he pointed out that there normally is a high mortality rate of young salmon, so people should not be alarmed if dead fish do show up.

Another conference call is planned for early next week, and there will also be a meeting among federal officials and tribal leaders next week.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said the change in water year types for the river shows the continued uncertainty project irrigators face.

He said low flows have not been determined as a key cause of fish dieoffs, and that other things such as water temperature and salmon run timing need to be taken into account.

"There has been no firm linkage connecting Iron Gate releases and fish die off," he said.

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