2002 Klamath Salmon Fish Kill
AP Photo/Eureka Times-Standard, Shaun Walker
Dave Blake, born and raised on the lower Klamath River, stands on a gravel bar where several dead salmon float a few miles up river from Klamath Glen, California on October 1, 2002. Environmental groups and the Yurok Tribe, who depend on Klamath River salmon for food, have blamed the Bureau of Reclamation for the fish kill, saying their management plan granting full irrigation deliveries to farmers of the Klamath Reclamation Project this year cut flows into the Klamath River for fish.

California Students Research Impacts of Drought on Tribes


As part of a Nature and World Cultures class, co-sponsored by the Humanities and Environmental Studies departments at San Jose State University, groups are required to turn in a research project in which they choose a topic relating to a how a tribe has changed their relationship with specific aspects of nature.

One group chose to tackle how the drought in California is affecting California tribes. This project has been very minimally edited by ICTMN. It is presented here as the students handed it in.

California Drought Negatively Impacts California Tribes

Stephanie Fields

Irene Rademacher

Chris White

Dams have created issues for Northern California tribes. California’s drought in 2001 left potato fields barren, leading to farmer led protests. The federal government responded by diverting water from the Klamath River Lower Basin to provide additional irrigation for their fields; despite scientific and environmental reports discouraging it.

In September of 2002, as a direct result of this action, more than 30,000 salmon of varied species died and were found rotting on the banks of the river. This mass “Fish Kill” was due to the inadequate amount of water in the river necessary in order to sustain healthy salmon populations.

The dams have affected the availability and health of the salmon population in the rivers near them. Side effects of this diversion include high levels of ammonia in the water, large algae blooms found downstream from the dams, and hypoxic zones; areas in which water has been depleted of the necessary oxygen to support marine life. Fish found below the dam in the lower basin have become infected with a parasite commonly found in waters that have hypoxic zones. Low water level increases the water temperature, creating a suitable environment for diseases and pathogens. This creates an inhospitable environment for the salmon, leading them to huddle together in cooler areas; increasing the spread of diseases.

The Hoopa tribe of Northern California, along with other tribes from the region, petitioned for the release of additional water from the dams; the loss of availability of salmon would be culturally devastating. The relationship between the Hoopa and fish of the river, specifically the salmon, perpetuates the health of the tribe through its use as a resource for food, religious purposes, and commercial use. The Klamath River Basin and the salmon it produces are an irreplaceable resource both culturally and economically for the Hoopa people. When asked about the potential for another mass fish kill, Hoopa tribal member Dania Colgrove was quoted in Indian Country Today as saying, “The Klamath fish kill of 2002 led to poor salmon returns devastating west coast fisheries for years afterward, since then tribes, scientists and the Department of Interior have worked together to avert fish kills by preventively releasing water during drought years”.

Therefore, without additional water being released from the dams, their very way of life would be at risk to undergo devastating cultural and economic changes. August 6th of this year, Yurok youth noticed an increase of deaths among the salmon population. This prompted the tribal members to, once again, petition the government to release additional water into the rivers. With a great deal of community effort, they managed to get water released from the dams. The decision came on September 16th, approximately one month after the detection of increased salmon deaths. Although they have succeeded in their endeavor at this time, the fight will continue until the dams are removed.

As their fight continues, support from the community will strengthen their ability to stimulate a change. Regardless of whether support is provided through supporting legislation, local nonprofit groups, or signing petitions, it can make a difference. Legislation is well established as being the best way make change in America and is needed to address issues of this nature. Legislation could order the removal of the dams on the Klamath and Trinity Rivers, providing sufficient water to increase habitat health for the wildlife reliant on these rivers. Local groups like the Salmon Restoration Association provide the necessary funding and support to restore and protect fish and their environment. The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) is an informative and proactive organization dedicated to protecting the waterways of the Pacific Northwest; public education and support is imperative if change is going to happen.

If you would like to help with the cause you can visit the EPIC website, sign petitions, participate in demonstrations, donate to the cause or send a letter to legislators asking for the release of sufficient water to maintain a healthy habitat. The Hoopa Tribe’s cultural survival is dependent on the health of the river and it will take cooperation and support from everyone to restore it to its natural state. In the documentary “Stories of the River, Stories of the People: Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk Memories of the Klamath River Basin” a local tribesman can be heard narrating the following statement which sums up the battle perfectly: “I think there is this whole process of healing that’s trying to happen on this river... we want to fight for our river, but we also need to be mindful and take care of ourselves as well”.

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