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Impending Fish Disaster in the Klamath-Trinity

Wild salmon have splashed their way up the Klamath River and its tributaries — including the largest of those tributaries, the Trinity River — for at least 12,000 years. Owing to a geological peculiarity, the Klamath Basin was a refuge for countless forms of wildlife at the time. Located just south of the glacial formations that covered much of the western hemisphere's lands, but just west of the volcanoes that rendered much of Northern California uninhabitable, the Klamath hosted an enormous diversity of wildlife that eventually spread across much of the American West.

Nowadays, the Klamath-Trinity have an altogether bleaker distinction: They are California's greatest remain refuge for wild salmon. During the Arcadian time that endured prior to Euro-American arrival, the salmon lashed rivers into whiteness throughout Northern and Central California. People could walk across rivers on the back of the migrating fish. Now, the Klamath-Trinity — which courses through the wildest corners of California and Southern Oregon — stands as the only river system in the Golden State where runs of non-hatchery salmon still return most years by the tens of thousands.

“Basically, the Klamath-Trinity is the last river ecosystem in California with a whole lot of wild fish,” says Robert Franklin, hydrologist for the Hoopa Valley Tribe based in Hoopa, CA, whose ancestral territory encompasses the majority of the Trinity River watershed. “The population size is diminished, but the system still produces on its own when left to its own devices.”

With California entering the fourth year of a record-shattering drought, long-time Klamath ecosystem experts are warning that a catastrophic die-off of these fish is probable next year, provided that the federal government continues to pump its customary quantity of the river's water “over the hill” to the Sacramento. The reason is straightforward: not enough cold water.

“What the Trinity and Klamath are facing is a catastrophe of epic proportions that will make the 2002 fish kill pale in comparison,” Tom Stokely of Mt. Shasta, a former Trinity County natural resources planner now with the California Water Impact Network, told the AVA. Stokely is referring to a 2002 period when a combination of low flows and high water temperatures allowed a gill rot disease to spread among the Chinook salmon in the Lower Klamath, killing at least 70,000 adults within a matter of only two weeks. It is widely considered the largest salmon fish kill in the history of the American West.

Klamath Fish Kill, 2002
Klamath Fish Kill, 2002

“If conditions in the Trinity Reservoir remain the same,” he continues, “and Central Valley water contractors continue to get as much water as they have, the fish will probably die next year in the Lower Klamath. Not only that, but they will also die in the Trinity River all the way up to the Trinity Dam.”

The temperature requirements of Pacific salmon have been extensively studied by government resource agencies. In 1989, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted “temperature objectives” in the Trinity River of 60 degrees, maximum, from July 1st to September 14th. The “temperature objective” for September 15th and on is 56 degrees, given that the salmon are spawning then and their eggs, which require cooler temperatures, are trying to hatch. If temperatures rise above roughly 63 degree Fahrenheit, it spells certain demise for the particular Chinook of this river.

Here in California, in the year 2014, the defining trait of the Trinity is that it supplies water to cannabis plants in that most remote area of the so-named Emerald Triangle, Trinity County. The river rises cold and clear out of the rugged Trinity Alps northwest of Redding, meandering through tight canyons and mountain meadows before joining the Klamath at the Yurok Indian Reservation, near what is now the town of Weitchpec, California. Its waters are crucial to the balance of the entire Klamath-Trinity system.

The Yurok are one of three indigenous nations in NorCal whose lives are inextricably linked to the Klamath-Trinity. The Hoopa Valley, whose 144-square mile reservation is the largest Native American sovereign territory in California, and the Karuk are the other two.

In 1962, as Californians and the US federal government were at the peak of their early-mid-20th century enthrallment with controlling exactly where water goes and who receives it, the Bureau of Reclamation completed the Trinity Dam near Weaverville: at the time of its completion, the highest earthfill dam in the world. The Bureau also constructed a network of power plant penstocks, pumping stations, gates and a 15-mile tunnel to the northern reaches of the Sacramento River, thence to be distributed by water contractors in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valley.

In some years, as much as 90% of the Trinity's flow at Lewiston has been diverted to Sacramento. In a more typical year, the total is around 60%. Besides acting as a source of water to almond orchards and cotton fields, one of the major incentives for maintaining these diversions is electricity generation: the Trinity Dam is a major source of electrical power throughout Northern California, including in Trinity County.

Much has changed since the Trinity Reservoir was first constructed, however, not the least of which is diminishing snowmelt brought about by climate change. The drought has greatly compounded the problem. As of this writing, the Trinity Reservoir is at 23% of capacity.

Over the years, tribes and conservationists have won new protections for the Trinity River. Their greatest achievement was a so-called Trinity “Record of Decision” (ROD), dramatically signed by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former Hoopa Valley Tribe Chairman Duane Sherman at the Hoopa tribal office on December 19, 2000. The ROD, for the first time since the construction of Trinity Dam, allowed 47 percent of the water to flow down the Trinity rather than being diverted to the Sacramento River via Whiskeytown Reservoir.

Louis Moore, public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Reclamation's Mid-Pacific Region, says that his agency regards the Trinity ROD as “as a critically important aspect of meeting Trinity River restoration objectives as well as our trust responsibility to affected Native American tribes. Even with the extremely dry conditions experienced in water year 2014, the full volume was released to the Trinity River.”

Given the Bureau's institutional biases toward big agribusiness and its legal obligations to Central Valley contractors under existing water rights law, however, Stokely says it is virtually inevitable that the fish — and the people who rely on them — will get the shaft.

“There's nothing that would limit the ability of the Bureau of Reclamation to flat-out drain the Trinity Lake down to a mud puddle,” he says. “Even though there are prescribed flows for the fishery in the ROD, the amount the Bureau sends over the hill to the Central Valley Project is not limited by that in a way that's actually enforced. And this year's exports over the hill to the Sacramento are the classic example.

But the Trinity Reservoir only received 340,000 acre-feet of natural run-off, as compared to more than one million acre feet during a typical rain year. Even so, the Bureau of Reclamation diverted 595,000 acre feet to water contractors in the Sacramento Valley, which is home to an estimated 22 percent of California's farmland. In other words, roughly 160 percent of the amount the reservoir received in rainfall was pumped to an altogether different watershed. By contrast, the Bureau released 369,000 acre-feet into the Trinity River to comply with the ROD.

Currently, roughly 550,000 acre-feet is in storage (an acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre to a depth of one foot — 325,800 gallons). As the storage level lowers, the water temperature increases. Thus, unless the winter of 2014-15 brings above average rain, it is unlikely that enough water will be on hand to continue meeting the needs of both fish and agribusiness.

This past August, as temperatures in the Lower Klamath soared into the 70s, tribal biologists on the banks of the Trinity at Tish Tang Campground — located near the confluence with the Klamath — began to discover fish carcasses washed up on shore. Some were victims of Gill-rot disease: the same malady that claimed the lives of Klamath salmon in 2002.

Cyanobacteria toxins that associate with blue-green algae were detected on both the Klamath and Trinity rivers. The North Coast tribes, as well as river advocates and some government officials, applied frantic pressure on the Bureau of Reclamation to release cold water from the reservoir, including an August 19th protest by hundreds of tribal members in Sacramento.

The Bureau eventually relented, releasing 70,000 acre feet, successfully staving off the grisly scenario that had begun to unfold. Relatively few other fish seem to have died from gill rot disease on the Klamath this past year. In short, the emergency water releases worked.

This coming year, a comparatively tiny volume of Trinity Reservoir water might well reach a high enough temperature that the emergency water releases are no longer effective at cooling the river basin's temperatures.

“Even in a situation where Trinity Reservoir has substantial run-off, we're likely to see it drawn on heavily,” says Robert Franklin of Hoopa Valley. “If we have a normal or drier water year, that would just exacerbate the situation.”

Already, as Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Robert Moore acknowledges, the Bureau had to use a new method to withdraw cold enough water to prevent a fish kill.

“Reduced Trinity Reservoir storage levels do hinder efforts to meet temperature targets in the Trinity River,” he says. “This year, however, temperature targets were met by utilizing the auxiliary outlet works at Trinity Dam, which withdraws colder water from deeper within the pool than the customarily used outlet works withdrawing water through the powerplant.”

The Klamath River's mainstem, of course, is even more impacted by dams than is the Trinity. From the 1920s to the 1960s, four hydroelectric dams were built by the California-Oregon Power Company (COPCO) and its successor PacifiCorp (owned by one of the world's wealthiest men, Warren Buffet) on the Klamath River main stem. Collectively, the dams have blocked salmon migration and trapped sediment that formerly replenished downstream gravel bars used by spawning salmon.

Meanwhile, the dams have caused erosion in the rivers to increase, decreasing the depth of spawning pools and, thus, the accessibility of cold water. And, whereas the spring-run chinook of each river used to travel exclusively to the cold-water tributaries above the dams, now they must make do as they can with the warmer waters of the mainstem and the tributaries in the lower parts of the river.

The long-term consequences of a massive fish kill in the Klamath-Trinity system next year is difficult to quantify. The main factor in strong salmon runs, biologists say, is favorable ocean conditions. If consecutive years of mass fish wasting happen, the impact would grow exponentially more bleak.

“In spite of the tremendous loss of fish, and certainly depressed spawning by those fish, it's not clear what the long-term impact was of the 2002 fish kill,” Robert Franklin says. “What we do fear is that if you have repeats of a fish kill, that would lead to a terrible long-term result.”

Even if a fish kill is somehow averted next year, advocates of the Klamath-Trinity see peril ahead for the river system on numerous fronts. California voters passed Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond, overwhelmingly on November 4th. The bond measure includes $2.7 billion for new water storage projects, which are likely to be earmarked for new dams.

One increasingly likely scenario would see two large new dams, each around 310 feet high, constructed on the Sacramento River. The water would be ferried through the Tehama-Colusa and Glen-Colusa canals, as well as a third canal that be built specifically for the project and originate north of Colusa. It would be stored in the so-called Sites Reservoir in the Antelope Valley, located just east of Mendocino National Forest, about 10 miles west of the small town of Maxwell on Interstate 5.

This past March, liberal Democrat John Garamendi joined with a Republican counterpart, Doug Le Malfa, to introduce a US House of Representatives bill that would underwrite construction of Sites Reservoir. At a cost of roughly $3.9 billion, the project is unbelievably expensive and faces numerous hurdles before gaining approval. But a large allocation from the State of California makes the construction considerably more likely.

As Rep. Garamendi stated this past spring: “We want to use the moment when people are focused and interested [in the drought]. We’ve got to move these projects forward.”

The construction of Sites Reservoir would create a new incentive to export Trinity water to the Sacramento. Notably, Trinity County's relatively tiny number of voters — whose county's economy has been hard hit by the Trinity River diversions — overwhelming opposed Proposition 1, with 70.4 percent voting against. By contrast, the two counties that arguably benefit most from the transfer of water from NorCal to SoCal, Fresno County and King County, support the water bond overwhelmingly, with 76.5 percent and 76% voting in favor, respectively.

A more immediate threat, many onlookers say, comes from a drought bill sponsored by Dianne Feinstein that the so-called “lame-duck” Congress is currently taking up. The bill would significantly ease Endangered Species Act restrictions on water exports from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta to farms and cities.

California Governor Jerry Brown and the US Department of the Interior continue to pursue their controversial plan to drill two 30ʼ-40ʼ diameter tunnels 150 feet deep for 35 miles under Californiaʼs Delta to siphon NorCal water to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and Southern California cities. The Delta Drains, as some project opponents have labeled them, has been rebuffed by the US Environmental Protection Agency in its current form, but the project continues to grind through the bureaucratic gears. This new water export infrastructure would put even more new demands on the Trinity's increasingly troubled waters.

During the gut-wrenching vortex of genocidal violence that was the California Gold Rush, the US federal government established the Klamath River Reservation by executive order along a 20 mile strip extending upstream a width of 1 mile on each side of the river from the Klamath River mouth. Many Yurok, Hoopa, and Karuk people refused to move onto the reservation.

According to General Beale, assigned to the Klamath reservation, the Hupa paid a price for their refusal: “This river [Trinity] … is rated as the best in the country for salmon fish, which constitutes almost the whole subsistence of the Indians. The whites took the whole river and crowded the Indians into the sterile mountains, and when they came back for fish they were usually shot.”

Nevertheless, the Indigenous people of the Klamath-Trinity have not only survived, but they have, respectively, the three largest landbases of any individual Indigenous nation in California. And they have won key protections for their sovereign fishing rights through litigation and direct action, which serve as a primary reason for the Bureau of Reclamation's water releases to stave off fish kills in recent years.

Members of the Yurok tribe say they have no experience in their cultural memory of anything like the 2002 fish kill ever having happened before. “The salmon runs spell life and death for the Indian people over the millennia, and if something like that had happened before, there would have been stories re-told and re-told,” Robert Franklin says. “It's not a scientific way of knowing, but it's absolutely true.”

In addition to being home to some of last truly wild salmon runs in California, the Klamath-Trinity is known as one of the most biodiverse areas of the world — especially for fish. The Klamath is likely home to the world's greatest populations of Green sturgeon. Its steelhead trout population is as robust as that of any river system in the Lower 48. According to Franklin, protection of these fisheries is not only a matter of great importance for the Hoopa Valley, Yurok, and Karuk, as well as the Indigenous people of what is now Southern Oregon, but also for everyone in California who desires a sustainable future.

“If Californians understood that this great wild place for fish, which are terrific food, is part of what they have to benefit from and pass down, then they might start to ask the question, ‘Why would I want to take water out of here to grow wine-grapes? Why is that a higher service of this public resource?’ ”

(Contact Will Parrish at wparrish[at]


  1. Clint Kelley November 24, 2014

    GO WILL!!!
    You’ve done an excellent series of articles about water. Thank you for all your research and reporting! You’ve got a fan in me!

  2. pete November 25, 2014

    Thanks,Bruce and Will,and Mark, you are doing a great job, asking about the water.’Nuff said.

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