Klamath Basin Coalition Briefing Paper
How Upper Klamath River Flow Management
Lower Klamath River
During late summer of 2002, tens of thousands of fat, healthy chinook
salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead trout entered the Klamath River, charging
upstream to spawn. Before they reached mile 40 of their journey, over 33,000
were dead, wiped out by the rivers unnaturally hostile conditions. The
salmonand the communities dependent upon themwere victims the
federal governments lopsided water management policy in the Klamath.
Earlier that year, federal officials in charge of the Klamath Irrigation
Project, a massive irrigation development in the Klamaths Upper Basin,
ignored warnings from their own and outside scientists and provided more water
to irrigation ditches than to the drought-parched river. The result was an
unprecedented ecological and economic disaster: the largest adult fish kill in
recorded Western U.S. history.
The federal agencies responded with immediate, but
temporary, increases in river flows. At the same time, federal agencies and
irrigator interest groups protested to anyone who would listen that the vast
amounts of water diverted by the Klamath Project had nothing to do with the
massive fish die-off. Such protestations had no basis in fact. For decades,
excessive diversions to the Klamath Project have had a profound negative impact
upon Klamath River flows, fisheries, and the economies and communities of the
Klamath River. As the American public began to understand after the fish kill,
a century of mismanagement and abuse has robbed the Klamath Basin of much of
the water that gives it life.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service and
independent hydrologists, the pre-Project Upper Basin provided the main source
of flow for the Lower Basin in late summer and fall, and was an especially
important source of water during drought years. In addition to the
regions formerly vast lake and marshland water storage, the Upper
Basins extensive volcanic aquifers supplied naturally high year-round
flows. Now, the development and operation of the Project has significantly
reduced summer flows in the Klamath, and threatens the survival of the
rivers fisheries and communities.
In 1998, the federal government contracted with Dr.
Thomas Hardy of Utah State University to provide the definitive scientific
evaluation of the water needs for the Klamaths salmon. As the study
neared completion, the Bush Administration inexplicably allowed Dr.
Hardys funding to lapse. The de-funding of Hardys crucial study has
stalled efforts to find a scientific, sustainable balance to serve the needs of
all communities dependent upon the Klamaths resources.
The Lowlights Negative Biological,
and Cultural Impacts
- The Klamath Irrigation Project diverts roughly 25% (450,000
acre-feet) of the Upper Klamath Basins entire mean annual flow (1.8
million acre-feet). Total irrigation diversions tend to be even greater during
dry years, to compensate for drier soils and increased evaporation. This
further reduces already low river flows. (Hecht and Kamman 1996, pp. 15,
- Historically, the Upper Basins contribution was most critical
during drought summers, often providing more than 40% of the rivers
entire summer flow. Over the past 35 years, irrigation demand has slashed the
upper rivers essential flow contribution to the lower river. Now, Upper
Basin irrigation flow management often provides only 5 to 10% of total river
flows during drought yearsan 80% reduction from pre-Project contribution
levels. (Hecht and Kamman 1996, p. 35)
- California Department of Fish and Game biologists determined low
flows caused the massive 2002 fish kill, and they predict the Klamaths
current flow management plan will likely cause significant fish kills during
dry years in the future. (CDFG Fish Kill Report 2002, pp. 54, 57)
- Low flows and fish kills have long gone hand and hand in the Klamath
River. Significant water quality-related fish kills occurred in 1994, 1997, and
2000; out-migrating young salmon suffered extraordinary mortality in 1995;
unnaturally high stress levels brought outbreaks of the parasite Ceratomyxa
shasta in 1994, 1995, and 1996; and in the spring of 2002, water diversions
to Project irrigators dropped river flows dramatically, stranding hundreds of
- April, May, and June are particularly critical months for salmon fry.
Small juvenile fish require streamside edge habitat, preferably areas of
inundated vegetation, to avoid predators and escape from strong water currents.
Low flows narrow the river channel, greatly reduce essential edge habitat,
force fry into harsh mid-channel currents, and dramatically increase mortality
due to predation and exhaustion.
- High river flows are also essential for young salmon smolts migrating
to the sea. Robust flows lower smolt travel time and reduce deaths due to
migration delays, predation, and exposure to poor water quality.
- 2002s fish kill eliminated roughly one-third of the returning
generation of chinook salmon before reproduction, and lessened reproductive
success for the greatly weakened fish kill survivors. This blow to the run will
also drastically reduce the fishing harvest opportunities in 3 to 4 years
timewhen 2002s surviving eggs mature to adults. This in turn
perpetuates more losses for the next generation of fish.
- According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the portion of the
Lower Basin economy dependent upon river tourism and non-commercial sport
fishing currently generates $800 million per year. The USGS estimates the value
of the Lower Basin economy would more than double in value with increased river
flows, improved water quality, and restored fisheries. In contrast, the
irrigator economy of the Upper Basin is valued at $100 million per year, and is
heavily dependent upon tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer and electrical
- Roughly 3,150 family-wage jobs are lost to the in-river and coastal
commercial salmon fishing economy as a direct result of the Klamaths
degraded habitat and resulting poor fish runs. (Institute for Fisheries
Resources 1998, p. 18)
- Salmon occupy a central position in the cultural, spiritual, and
traditional sustenance ways of the Yurok, Hoopa Valley, and Karuk Tribes along
the Klamath River. Loss of the historic, vigorous salmon runs in the Klamath
represents an irreparable loss to these Native American cultures.
(last updated 4/1/03)