SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Continuing dry conditions over the Pacific Northwest
have led to warnings from an inter-tribal group that could spell disaster
for the Klamath basin in the coming months.
Sources at the Klamath River Inter-Tribal Fish and Water Commission warn
that persistent drought conditions, coupled with poor federal management
policies, could endanger a range of fish species. The commission is a
coalition of four northern California, Oregon Klamath, and southern Oregon
tribes including the Hoopa, Yurok and Karuk.
Rainfall patterns on the West Coast this year are nearly the opposite of
normal. Whereas relatively dry Los Angeles is expected to break its
all-time single season record for rainfall of about 38 inches, set in the
1880s, normally rainy Oregon, Washington and northern California have taken
on a precipitation pattern more like that of San Diego.
For the Pacific Northwest, particularly the borderlands between California
and Oregon, this is part of an ongoing drought pattern that has lasted five
years. Unless the region is inundated with late-season rains, the coming
year promises to be one of the worst.
Farmers in the region enjoyed federal water allocations for several decades
due to an early 20th century federal water project. In the early 1990s, the
Clinton administration acknowledged the treaty rights of tribes in the
basin and promised there would be enough water for fish as well.
The dry weather pattern has hit areas of the Pacific Northwest interior the
hardest. One such area is the Klamath basin, where tensions between
ranchers and business interests on one side and tribes and fishermen on the
other have been heightened.
Klamath tribal members claim they have been the victims of racial
harassment. A local restaurant in the town of Klamath Falls, Ore. has
advertised “suckerfish sandwiches,” a reference to one of the endangered
fish in the Klamath basin. The restaurant also announced that sales of the
sandwich, which did not contain the endangered fish, went to fighting the
Endangered Species Act.
These tensions initially stemmed from shrinking water allocations for
farmers in the basin to keep water levels healthy for endangered fish. When
those allocations were increased, with great fanfare at a ceremony attended
by former Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman and Secretary of the
Interior Gale Norton, farmers’ irrigation canals were opened. Shortly
thereafter a massive die-off, estimated now at 68,000 fish, mainly chinook,
took place on the Klamath River.
George and Yurok tribal biologist Dave Hillemeier said part of the federal
management problem, beyond what they see as a bias towards farmers and
business interests, is that it only manages for single species.
For example, the aforementioned suckerfish along with the coho salmon are
currently listed as endangered species. Hillemeier and George claim the
federal government is only interested in meeting the minimum requirements
of river flow to meet these species’ needs, imperiling other species that
may be at risk. As a side note, Hillemeier also claims that even these
minimum flows are not enough for the coho.
Hillemeier and George claim that other species, including the
non-endangered chinook, are beginning to feel the repercussions of reduced
water flows. A Eureka, Calif. Times-Standard article lists last year’s fall
run of chinook on the Klamath River at a little less than 88,777 after
counts of 195,793 and 170,014 in the immediately preceding years.
Hillemeier and George say that based on previous years’ spawning numbers,
the outlook for chinook this year looks to be even grimmer.
Other species of concern to the commission include the green sturgeon and
lamprey. George contends that if current drought conditions persist and
water flows are not reallocated to the Klamath, the combination could add
one or more of these fish species to the endangered list.
Hillemeier and George claim the federal government’s failure to allocate
more water for fish in the basin will constitute a breach of federal trust
responsibility. This, to the commission, includes maintaining resource
areas at levels sufficient for tribal subsistence.
“Fishing rights for the tribes are meaningless if there are no fish,” said
It is unclear how the federal government plans to handle the looming
problem, particularly if water flows reach a critical point where shortages
to both area farmers and endangered species would have to be dealt with.
Rae Olsen, public affairs officer for the Klamath Basin Area at the Bureau
of Reclamation, said that at the moment her agency is essentially praying
for a reprieve in the form of late rains and snows. Over the past 100
years, reported Olsen, there have been examples of March rains salvaging an
entire winter rainy season.
Barring that, Olsen said that Bureau of Reclamation has not made any
“Obviously, we will then have to make some decisions if [National Weather
Service] predictions are not right for a wetter March.”