(Dan Brekke/KQED)
(Dan Brekke/KQED)

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Friday that it will release water over the next several weeks to aid chinook salmon on the Klamath and Trinity rivers — a move that native tribes on the river have lobbied for to prevent a repeat of a catastrophic die-off that killed tens of thousands of fish headed upstream to spawn in 2002.

The tribes welcomed the bureau’s decision, which involves releasing about 25,000 acre-feet of water into the Trinity River from Lewiston Dam, northwest of Redding starting Saturday morning and continuing through Sept. 14.

But the Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which serve thousands of farms in the San Joaquin Valley, immediately announced they will seek a temporary restraining order to stop the releases. The federal court in Fresno that will hear that motion notified the agencies that no action is likely before Tuesday evening.

As recently as three weeks ago, the bureau said it would not consider emergency water releases unless scientists saw signs that a die-off, caused by pathogens that thrive in warm, slow-moving water, was under way. But the agency signaled last week it might reconsider after members of the Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes had an impromptu meeting in Redding with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. The tribes, along with environmental and fishing groups, argued that low flows and warm water on the river have created perfect conditions for a die-off of chinook salmon.

“For them to turn around and release the flows in this emergency situation is certainly a win for the fish,” said Robert Franklin, senior hydrologist with Hoopa Valley Tribal Fisheries, after the bureau announced its decision. He added that the planned release should be effective in heading off a deadly complex of maladies, especially a condition called gill rot and a parasite known as Ich (for Ichthyophthirius multifiliis) that can kill salmon.

Franklin said the last-minute nature of the bureau’s decision showed the need for better advance planning in times of drought.

“The tribe has been on this since February, writing Secretary Jewell about the coming problem as the drought became very, very apparent,” Franklin said. “… So we’re wanting very much to have our eyes on the strategic planning and have something in place that keeps us from having to hurry up and do this with very little time.”

But in a statement, Dan Nelson, the executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, blasted the water releases.

“Today, United States Bureau of Reclamation announced it will dump precious Central Valley Project water while the people of our valley suffer from well-documented and widely reported social and economic destruction as a result of government policies compounded by the drought,” Nelson said.

And he questioned whether the releases are necessary to save migrating fish.

“The number of returning salmon is still well below the established level of concern. In fact, reports from field biologists, fishing guides and fishermen along the lower Klamath all indicate that the prevalent fish in the river is steelhead, not chinook salmon. There are no reports of any disease outbreak, which was the requisite condition for change Reclamation established just weeks ago. The only condition that has changed is the increase in volume in the voices of a few special interests.”

In announcing the releases, David Murillo, the bureau’s mid-Pacific regional director, said conditions on the lower Klamath are “unprecedented” and require the agency to take emergency action.

“This decision was made based on science and after consultation with tribes, water and power users, federal and state fish regulatory agencies, and others,” Murillo said in a statement.

The Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes have a unique role in questions surrounding the Klamath-Trinity salmon fishery. The tribes enjoy federally protected fishing rights to salmon and steelhead in the rivers and some of their tributaries, a status confirmed by an Interior Department legal opinion in 1993.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Email Dan at: dbrekke@kqed.org

Twitter: twitter.com/danbrekke
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