The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced to local tribes, government officials and water stakeholders today that it will not be releasing extra water from Trinity Lake to cool the waters used by chinook salmon and steelhead in the Trinity and Klamath rivers — as it has in years past — but focus the limited supply to prevent large fish kills on federally endangered species in the Central Valley.
"We're trying to retain that cold water supply in order to comply to those listings for other runs of salmon," said Public Affairs Officer Mat Maucieri of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "We basically don't want to deplete our cold water pool if we may potentially need it for these other runs."
The decision was made in order to protect endangered winter-run and spring-run salmon listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in the Sacramento River and its tributary, Clear Creek. The spring-run and fall-run chinook salmon in the lower Klamath and Trinity rivers are not listed as endangered under the federal act.
In the midst of a statewide drought, Maucieri said the bureau, which controls releases from Trinity Lake, will not be making its periodic preventative releases in September or late August, which cools down the water temperatures before it creates a health hazard to the anadromous steelhead and salmon. The releases began after a massive fish kill in the Klamath River in 2002, with four pre-emptive releases being made since the incident.
"The drought is very much a factor in this," Maucieri said. "It's necessitating these kinds of decisions. This is a decision that we do not take lightly."
Trinity Lake is at 36 percent capacity, about 10 percent less than the historical average to the date, according to the Department of Water Resources.
While it will not be making its preventive releases, Maucieri said the bureau will make an emergency release to double the flow the of the river for seven days if its monitoring programs at the mouth of the lower Klamath River finds signs of decaying fish health, such as dead fish.
Maucieri said the water would take two-days to reach the lower Klamath River, but Hoopa Valley Tribe Fisheries Director Mike Orcutt said it would take around four-and-a-half days.
"They're basically waiting to see if dead carcasses start to show up," Orcutt said. "By the time they pull the trigger on that release, it takes four-and-a-half days to get there. At that point, it's too late."
High water temperatures in rivers are dangerous to the chinook salmon and steelhead, which prefer to remain in cooler waters during the summer while they wait for their spawning season in the fall. With temperatures rising to the high 70s in the Trinity and Salmon rivers, Orcutt said this makes the fish more prone to diseases, like gill rot disease. Following a drought in 2001, an estimated 60,000 salmon in the Klamath River died from the disease in September 2002, which spread throughout the record 181,000 fish run as they crowded into low and warm pools waiting for higher water to move upstream to spawn.
"It's analogous to coughing in a crowded room, and start transmitting it to the other people," Orcutt said.
A fish population assessment last week on 90 miles of the Salmon River, another tributary to the Klamath, found 54 dead adults and estimated 300 to 600 dead juvenile chinook salmon and steelhead. In a recent interview with the Times-Standard, Karuk Tribe Klamath Coordinator Craig Tucker said there are 738 chinook salmon currently in the lower Klamath River, slightly less than the 30-year average of 800.
With water currently being pumped into the Trinity River from the Trinity Dam at a rate of about 450 cubic feet of water per second, about 3,000 cubic feet per second is being pumped through the Lewiston Dam — which regulates flow of Trinity Lake's Lewiston reservoir — into a tunnel through Whiskeytown and into the Sacramento River basin. In a July 29 letter to the bureau, 2nd District Congressman Jared Huffman said that the bureau's current operations violate California Water Right Order 90-05, which states that it may not release water for water temperature control on the Sacramento River in a way that would "adversely affect salmonid spawning and egg incubation in the Trinity River."
"By state law, Trinity River salmon — which begin their upstream migration in the Klamath River — must be protected before water is used to bail out the Central Valley Project," Huffman said in a statement. "When you find yourself in a hole, you're supposed to stop digging, but Reclamation has dug itself a hole it cannot get out of, and tribes and fishermen may once again pay the price."
The bureau's Central Valley Project Operation Manager Ron Milligan said they have been working with the State Water Resources Control Board and a Sacramento River temperature control group that was set up by Water Right Order 90-05 and believe that this decision would not fall under that provision.
"This is about fish health and about them holding in the lower Klamath before they migrate upstream," Milligan said. "The flows that we've being asked to provide are not for spawning, they are to protect and avoid disease while those fish are holding. Those fish don't spawn in the mouth of the Klamath."
Local salmon fisherman David Bitts said there is not going to be enough water for everyone due to the drought, but he would like to see some proportional sharing of what water is left.
"I think it's going to be a real tough fall," Bitts said. "We rely way too much on divine intervention to keep these fish going, and unless we get that in lots of early rain, it's going to be a really tough fall for chinook trying to spawn in the Klamath and Trinity this year."
Yurok Tribe Fisheries Program Manager Dave Hillemeier said he hopes that more technical discussions with the bureau can take place in the near future to avoid what he called an upcoming "train wreck."
It's a major concern to us," he said. "The concern is we could be facing conditions that could lead to a fish kill similar to what we experienced back in 2002. The tribal council and Yurok people want to do everything they can to prevent a tragedy such has that from happening again."