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Feds reply water can't meet tribal requests

Native Americans on the Klamath River asked for extra releases to flush fish past parasite infestations
Friday, July 02, 2004

Federal water managers said there is not enough water in the Klamath Basin to release extra for diseased fish in the Klamath River as tribes downstream had requested.

Upwards of 80 percent of young salmon collected in some parts of the river this year have been infected with often lethal parasites, said Gary Stacey of the California Department of Fish and Game. The parasites are native to the river system, but the outbreak this year seems severe, he said.

He said low and warm water in what has become the latest of a series of dry years may be stressing fish, leaving them more vulnerable to disease.

However, Al Donner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the die-off started in early May when water was clean, cool and more plentiful.

"There's probably other stuff going on, too," Donner said.

Managers of the federal Klamath Project, which supplies water to farmers on the Oregon-California line, control much of the water flowing into the Klamath River.

They must maintain certain water levels in Upper Klamath Lake for endangered suckers while sending prescribed amounts into the river for threatened coho salmon. But increasingly dry conditions have left little extra water.

It's an example of continuing tensions about the distribution of water among farms, wildlife and Native American tribes that depend on salmon. Protections for fish during a severe drought in 2001 meant that little water was left for farms.

Tribes, working with state and federal biologists, asked project managers on Wednesday to send a surge of extra water down the river in hopes of pushing fish through diseased areas before they are infected.

But U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials concluded there was not enough water to meet the request, said Christine Karas, deputy area manager. Releasing the water would have lowered Upper Klamath Lake below levels required by the Endangered Species Act, she said.

"Everybody feels very bad about it," she said. "If we had the water, we would have tried it."

Karas said officials would try to allow extra water for such a contingency in next year's planning.

Mike Orcutt of the Hoopa Valley tribe said biologists did not know whether the extra surge of water would have helped the fish, but they thought it was important to try. The tribe remains concerned about a repeat of fish die-offs that have struck young and adult salmon in past years.

Biologists have focused more study on the parasites and their effects this year, Donner said.

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com

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