Senator’s comments on salmon criticized

Senator’s comments on salmon criticized

Article in the Eugene Register-Guard on Senator Gordon Smith’s comments on the Klamath River salmon kill in 2002.

By David Steves
Eugene Register-Guard
August 11, 2007


SALEM – Sen. Gordon Smith’s explanation this week of how the 2002 diversion of Klamath Lake water for irrigation related to a massive salmon die-off has fish advocates questioning the accuracy of his account.

The Oregon Republican told The Register-Guard editorial board that the water diversion in the drought year of 2002 raised questions about sucker fish, and that “the focus at the time was not on salmon.” Smith also said he believed it was 18 months later that the salmon kill occurred near the mouth of the Klamath River.

Smith, who pushed the Bush administration to help get water for farmers’ potato crops and alfalfa fields, said he recalled that the salmon “died of some gill disease, which is not uncommon and happens periodically.”

Those seeking Smith’s electoral defeat next year have been highly critical of the senator’s published comments.

A Democratic Party of Oregon news release and Web site accused Smith of “telling a whopper.” The left-leaning Oregon blogs, Loaded Orygun and BlueOregon, had been criticizing Smith’s involvement in the Klamath water diversion for days before his editorial board appearance. After his comments there were published, those blogs scrutinized and questioned Smith’s assertions, as has the national progressive DailyKos blog.

Not everyone questioning Smith’s statements is a political foe. Commercial fishing advocate Glenn Spain said Smith has been an ally over the years. But after reading the senator’s comments, Spain said Smith’s version of those events in 2002 did not square with his own. Spain said there was no question that diverting water reduced river flows to such low levels that returning salmon died in the lower Klamath River, with the death toll estimated as high as 77,000.

Smith attributing the dead fish to gill disease, Spain said, “is sort of like saying lung cancer kills smokers, not smoking.

“The triggering cause is low water flow. And then the fish die of a dozen different diseases, all of which are related to high water temperatures, crowding fish, stress and the fact that they can’t get up the river … because there’s not enough water for them to travel in,” said Spain, the Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “All of those were in play, but they all derived from low flows.”

That was the same conclusion of a peer-reviewed evaluation of the fish kill, published in 2004 by the California Department of Fish and Game.

The California report said the fish had entered the Klamath River to encounter stressful conditions: warm temperatures, low flows and crowding because of an unusually large run returning to spawn. Under such conditions, they succumbed to diseases triggered by a parasite-caused bacterial infection, which led to lesions on the gills and elsewhere. While these parasites and bacteria are common, they don’t typically cause fish kills, especially among wild fish, which made up the majority in this die-off, the scientists wrote. In this case they did, however, because of the river’s conditions.

Among the factors that contributed to the fish kill, the report said 2002’s unusually low water flows were unique.

“Flow is the only controllable factor and tool available in the Klamath Basin … to manage risks” against future major fish kills, the report concluded.

Smith’s assertion that the fish kill occurred 18 months later contradicted the report’s time line. The die-off was reported between Sept. 19 and Oct. 1 of 2002 on the lower 36 miles of the Klamath River in Northern California, coming as fall chinook were returning to the river to spawn. Chinook and steelhead, neither of which are threatened or endangered in the Klamath, made up most of the fish kill. Several dozen threatened coho were killed, which one former federal biologist has said may have had a significant impact on future numbers within that salmon run.

The fish kill occurred a little more than five months after the March 29, 2002, reopening of the headgates of the main water diversion canal in the upper Klamath basin.

Jeff Curtis of Trout Unlimited in Portland questioned Smith’s characterization of the decision to release water as the response to a choice between water for sucker fish and irrigation for farmers.

“His assertion that the water was for the suckers is kind of silly,” Curtis said. “If you take the water out for irrigation, you are depriving water of both the suckers and the downstream migrants,” including coho.

And both types of fish are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. That is why a 2001 biological opinion by federal scientists prohibited the release of Klamath water that year for irrigation, as area farmers and politicians had been demanding.

The 2002 release of water for irrigation was triggered by a scientifically disputed review of the 2001 biological opinion, which was ordered by the Bush administration and conducted by the National Academy of Sciences.

Democrats and fish advocates may be unhappy with Smith’s explanation. But the renewal of a five-year-old controversy is also reminding farmers and other residents of the Klamath Basin of how the senator went to bat for them during desperate times, said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

He said area irrigators by and large shared Smith’s sense that it’s neither fair nor accurate to simply blame the fish kill on farmers. The Klamath Basin’s history for the past 100 years has been one of water diversion for agriculture, high late-summer water temperatures, occasional low water flows, and fall salmon runs – yet there were no fish kills in those years leading up to 2002.

“What gets people angry – and you saw some of it over the last several weeks with all the D.C. stuff – is the implication that water for farms is bad for fish,” Addington said. “It’s not that simple. You can’t just pinpoint that ag is the reason those fish died.”

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