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10 Years After Klamath Fish Kill, New Water Proposals and Weakening of Indian Water Rights Threaten Salmon Gains

Leonard Masten
10/29/12

Ten years ago thousands of adult salmon died in the Lower Klamath River in far Northern California when extremely low flows ordered by the Bush administration created lethal conditions for fish. This year, as we celebrate the first good run of salmon since the fish kill let’s remember the ten years of advocacy that got us here.

Proposed projects like California governor Jerry Brown’s massive tunnels to Southern California could siphon water from the Klamath watershed via diversions of its largest tributary the Trinity River. What’s more, water planning, and proposed legislation which calls for assurances against Tribal water rights, on the Klamath proves the threats to the ailing watershed are far from over.

In 2002 the Bush administration using manipulated science, ordered flows mandated by the Endangered Species Act be lowered in the Klamath River to appease farmers. The result: about 68,000 dead adult salmon. The fish kill led to a decade of suffering in California and Oregon’s fish-dependent communities, which rely on the Klamath run. Low runs of Klamath Salmon led to congressionally declare economic disasters. It also lead years where there was not enough salmon to support Tribal ceremonies, let alone subsistence fishing. To California’s three largest Tribes the impacts where devastating.

Salmon upstreamKlamath River Tribes, other community members, and coastal fishermen mourned this tragedy and began to fight harder than ever for the salmon, and the cultures and jobs they support. There has been positive change since.

In the last decade we saw the beginning of large-scale restoration on the Trinity River, the Klamath’s largest, most fish producing tributary; the movement to take down four dams owned by Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp in the Klamath River; and a myriad of efforts to restore our watersheds and the people and cultures who depend on them. In 2010 PacifiCorp committed to taking out their antiquated dams to aid salmon. The actions of Tribal people, and the assertion of water and fishing rights by Tribal governments, have been motivators for all of these actions.

This year, as a result of good ocean conditions and salmon action, an estimated 378,000 salmon came up the Klamath River. These salmon lead to a boom for coastal fishing communities in a poor economy, and a large salmon allotment for struggling Klamath River Tribes. This run was facing conditions similar to 2002 until the government heeded the advice of Tribes, fishermen and scientists and allocated more water to avoid another fish kill. As we enjoy the fruits of our victories let us remember the fish that died in 2002, and all those who have fought for the salmon before and since. There is no guarantee we will see more years like this unless we stay committed to restoration, increased flows and the preservation of Tribal rights on the Klamath and Trinity rivers.

Back steps like Governor Brown’s proposed peripheral tunnels and Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which aim to bring more of Northern California’s water to Southern California, threaten the Trinity and Klamath River flows. The Trinity is the only out-of-basin watershed imported into the BDCP and Sacramento Valley. It is also the largest and cleanest watershed that enters the Klamath. The tunnel proposal could increase the demand to send the Trinity’s water to Southern California, reversing of the biggest win the Klamath salmon have seen, the decision to restore the Trinity River. Unfortunately it was not until after the 2002 fish kill that a thirty-year struggles for the Trinity’s water was resolved and 48% of historical flows were returned to the river. (Up to 90 percent of the river had been diverted south.) This water was secured due to language in the 2000 Trinity Record of Decisions that provides for a restored fishery for subsistence use. It is Tribal fishing and water rights that created this mandate.

It is also essential to salmon survival that Buffett’s PacifiCorp stands by its promise to take out the Klamath dams and stop stalling with the proposed Klamath settlement legislation. Dam relicensing, which occurs every fifty years provides an opportunity to surrender the dams’ though public processes. This could have happened years ago; instead dam removal is stalled by expensive legislation that compromises flow for salmon and Indian water rights. This legislation set a dangerous precedent by assuring the government will not protect water rights for Tribes that do not sign the settlement legislation The assertion of Tribal water rights and sovereignty is key not only to salmon recovery, but also the preservation of Native cultures, and therefore this legislation is unacceptable.

The communities that depend on salmon cannot let bureaucracy and inaction kill the Klamath Salmon and return us to 2002. Let us remember the dead fish the blanketed the shores of the Klamath by taking action for our communities and rivers.

Leonard Masten is the chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. He has been active with the Tribal council for the last fourteen years and is a retired law enforcement officer with over 26 years of experience. His main goal as Tribal chairman is to make the Hoopa Valley a safe and drug free environment.

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