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A river on edge: Watching the Klamath for signs of another disaster
A handful of dead fish are floating in the Klamath River, and others are nuzzling up to cold creeks for relief from the hot water.
As fishermen, American Indians and biologists watch for signs of diseases like those that killed tens of thousands of salmon in 2002, there is only one thing definite: Everyone is jumpy.
"We netted the most beautiful 12-pound steelhead -- floating dead down the river," said fishing guide Tim King on Tuesday.
The nervousness was nearly palpable the following day. Fishermen with furrowed brows asked state biologists what they'd found on a survey of the lower river.
Even at 9 a.m. in the shade at the boat ramp in Klamath Glen on Wednesday, the water is 70 degrees. A big fall run of salmon, estimated to be 90,000 this year, have still not shown up.
But a few steelhead and big chinook salmon were belly up. A check of their gills found them to have a touch of columnaris, which shows up as spots on the gills.
"Basically the only thing missing for a fish kill are the fish," said California Department of Fish and Game biologist Sara Borok.
She and others on the river as part of the Klamath Basin Fish Health Assessment Team thought the dozen or so fish they'd found probably succumbed to predators or a lethal hooking. The team of state, federal and tribal biologists, as well as stakeholders, was assembled last summer.
The team will present to the public its observations and analysis at a meeting at the Yurok Tribal headquarters in Klamath at 7 p.m. today.
With some disease showing, people are worried that the big slug of fish waiting to come up the river could get crowded into cooler spots and become infected like a kid in a flu-ridden kindergarten class.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is still deciding when to send a pulse of water down the Klamath's main tributary, the Trinity River. That should help raise and cool a very shallow and hot lower Klamath River, which has been averaging 72 to 74 degrees, temperatures that can stop fish from migrating.
The question is when to do it. It takes several days for water released from Lewiston Dam to reach Blue Creek, where on Wednesday steelhead jostled in 10- to 20-degree cooler water.
"When it's really low they seem to come right to here and just stack," said Yurok Tribe fisheries technician Mark Sanderson.
So if the salmon run begins, gets sick, and crowds into areas like Blue Creek, the Trinity water could come too late.
If the salmon run late, however, the pulse of water might be sent down before the need arises. The Trinity Management Council has recommended the water be released beginning on Sunday.
Others have their own opinions. King, who has chronicled his observations on his website, said the federal government needs to release the water now.
In 2002, Reclamation did not increase flows until well after the fish kill began, and the boost at the end of the event served mainly to flush some carcasses out of the river.
State, federal and tribal biologists diving on the river recently have not seen signs that salmon have begun migrating up from the estuary. Lowering a remote camera into several well-used deep holes in the river, few salmon could be seen, although steelhead darted here and there.
Reclamation has said it will likely release the water at the same time it releases its plan.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project supervisor Mike Long said he does not believe the bureau is dragging its feet.
"I don't think there's any hesitation about releasing the water if that's what's needed," he said.
Flows from the Klamath's lowermost Iron Gate Dam will increase a slight 200 cubic feet per second on Aug. 24. Flows from the Trinity could go to 1,650 cfs on Sunday, then ramp back down until mid-September, if the bureau goes with the Trinity Management Council's recommendations.
The team on Wednesday found about the same number of fish that had been reported by fishermen. In one backwater, a 35-pound chinook salmon lay dead, its skin drying on its bloated body.
It showed signs of columnaris, but no one could say what killed it.
"Hopefully not a sign of things to come," said Fish and Game biologist Wade Sinnen. "I wouldn't expect to see anything right now until big numbers of fish come up the river."
That could be any time now.
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