Bureau of Reclamation Releases Extra Water to Help Klamath Salmon

On September 17, 2014, the Bureau of Reclamation began releasing water from the Trinity Reservoir in Northern California in order to double the flow rate in the Lower Klamath River.   The release, which was scheduled to last seven days and use between 35 and 40 thousand acre-feet of water, was an attempt to prevent an outbreak of Ich parasites in the Klamath Basin’s Chinook salmon population.

Earlier in the summer, Reclamation had hoped to avoid releasing additional water into the Trinity and Klamath rivers.  In July, it announced that it would not release water in the rivers as a preventative measure, opting instead to save the water to protect fish runs in the Sacramento River.  That decision drew criticism from Native American tribes in the Klamath Basin, who rely on the salmon, and skepticism from some environmentalists, who believed the water was really going to Central Valley farmers. In late August, on the heels of a protest by Klamath basin Native American groups in Sacramento, Reclamation conducted an extra water release in the hopes of protecting the fish.  After additional testing showed the parasite was still present, Reclamation announced the September release.

Reclamation’s eventual decision to release water has its roots in a large salmon die-off in the Klamath in 2002.  During that incident, scientists with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) documented 34,056 dead fish in the river, 97% of which were Chinook salmon.  FWS noted that because of the practical impossibility of observing all dead fish, it is likely that the scale of the die-off was larger than recorded.

In 2003, a team of scientists from FWS and the Trinity River Restoration Program, a collaborative effort between state and federal agencies, proposed possible ways to avoid a similar die-off in the future.  They identified several factors that contributed to the parasite outbreak, including warm water temperatures and dry conditions, which led to high fish densities in the lower river.  To combat these factors, the scientists proposed three options, all of which involve releasing water from the Trinity River.  Depending on the volume and duration of the release, the cooler water from the Trinity would lower temperatures in the Lower Klamath.  Additionally, increased flow would lower densities in the Klamath and might cause some salmon to move upstream and spawn in the Trinity. The recommended release method involved pulse flows, followed by sustained flows for up to two weeks if the pulses did not achieve the desired result.

While the 2002 experience explains the ultimate decision to release water, the current drought complicated the decision.  In a press release from the agency, Mid-Pacific Regional Director David Murillo said, “We are greatly concerned about the impact today’s decision may have on already depleted storage levels…. We must, however, take all reasonable measures to prevent a recurrence of the fish losses experienced in 2002.”

These particular releases became wrapped up in a larger legal dispute. In 2013, several local water agencies challenged Reclamation’s releases in San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority et al v. Jewell et al., a federal lawsuit.  The agencies contended that the releases, which began in August 2013, violated the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and the Reclamation Act of 1902.   This year, with the court still deliberating on the case, the plaintiffs sought an injunction against the additional releases, according to the Associated Press.  However, the judge declined to stop the release, ruling that the immediate needs of the fish took priority.  Finally, on October 1st, the judge issued his ruling, which found that the releases were not prohibited by the CVPIA, but that the law Reclamation claimed authorized the releases did not apply.

Written by Stratecon Staff