Klamath Basin Coalition Briefing Paper

How Upper Klamath River Flow Management
Harms the Lower Klamath River

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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 river’s unnaturally hostile conditions. The salmon–and the communities dependent upon them–were victims the federal government’s 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 Klamath’s 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 region’s formerly vast lake and marshland water storage, the Upper Basin’s 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 river’s 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 Klamath’s salmon. As the study neared completion, the Bush Administration inexplicably allowed Dr. Hardy’s funding to lapse. The de-funding of Hardy’s crucial study has stalled efforts to find a scientific, sustainable balance to serve the needs of all communities dependent upon the Klamath’s resources.

The “Lowlights” – Negative Biological, Economic,
and Cultural Impacts

(last updated 4/1/03)

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