More than 35,000 fish lay dead in the bed of the Klamath River and the death count continues to rise. These are not just any fish. They are wild salmon, both coho and chinook, the very totems of the Northwest. They suffocated from lack of cool water.
As the death toll mounted, Gale Norton, the grim boss of the Interior Department, acted befuddled and suggested that the die-off in these foul waters was a strange natural mystery.
But there’s no need to call in a fish coroner. The slaughter in the Klamath River was a deliberate act, connived at by the White House, the Interior Department and the gang of Klamath River basin irrigators who have run riot down in southern Oregon for these many years.
“There are fish floating in every eddy,” says Mike Belchick, a biologist with the Yurok Tribe. “Eyes popping out. Guts coming out. Scores of dead fish with moss on them. It makes me want to cry.”
Now water is being released from the dams upstream near Klamath Lake. But it’s far too late and will do little more than flush the stinking corpses downstream, along with the daily brew of pesticides, cowshit, and fertilizer that accounts for the normal effluent from the fields of the Klamath Basin.
Off course, it’s the big fish kills that grab the headlines. And this was an unprecedented one: more than 30 percent of the entire salmon population of the Klamath wiped out in a single blow. Tribal leaders say there’s no precedent for the death toll in history or myth.
But the salmon of the Klamath River, once one of the mightiest runs on earth, have been dying out for decades in a slow, steady slide toward extinction.
The gory frontpage photos of mass death send the wrong message, shocking, but oddly comforting to those responsible. They suggest a sudden catastrophic event, a singular tragic mistake. In fact, the salmon of the Klamath River, which flows some 200 miles from southern Oregon to the northern California coast, are the victim of a system that has conspired against them since the 1940s, at least.
It is a system of industrial agriculture, backed by the federal government, that has been given free reign to dewater the Klamath River to irrigate cheap croplands of alfalfa, potatoes and onions. More than half the annual income from these farms and ranches come from federal crop supports, but apparently that doesn’t obligate them to save the fish.
The fact that the Yurok, Hoopa and Klamath tribes enjoy treaty rights to the river’s salmon and depend on those fish for food, income and ceremonial rites has meant nothing to the masters of the river.
This is story of a death foretold. Biologists have warned since the 1970s that big changes in river flows were needed to avert extinction of coho and chinook salmon and the Klamath River suckerfish.
For eight years, Clinton and Babbitt did little for the salmon. Every proposal was a half-measure, which denounced by the Klamath irrigators, and followed by a quick retreat. The salmon stocks declined, the delicate coho, which thrives in cold, clear water, tottered toward extinction.
By the time the Bush crowd took office there was no margin for error. A nasty drought in the summer of 2001 exacerbated the problem. When federal biologists called for the Bureau of Reclamation to dribble out more water for the fish, the Klamath farmers threw a fit. They organized a so-called “bucket brigade,” a raid on the dams and pumps that diverted water into their parched fields. Threats were leveled against federal biologists, environmentalists and Indians.
The sheriff of Klamath Falls joined in the fun, saying he wouldn’t arrest any of the irrigators for monkeywrenching the water diversions. One of his deputies, Lt. Jack Redfield, even said at a rally of ranchers and farmers that he might tolerate some violence against Oregon environmentalists. Then he named two potential targets: Andy Kerr and Wendell Wood. “It won’t take much from Andy Kerr or Wendell Wood or their like to spark an extremely violent response,” said Redfield. “I am talking about rioting, homicides, destruction of property.
Environmentalist who engage in tree sits and roadblocks to stop timber sale are now treated by like terrorists in several states, including Oregon and Idaho. Only last week, three Oregon forest activists were arrested on charges of torching logging equipment. They now face the possibility of 20 years in jail and $500,000 in fines.
But the Klamath water bullies are accustomed to having their way. They convinced the federal government to turn over almost half of the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge to them, which is now farmed at the expense of native wildlife. They’ve gotten away with destroying federal property, killing endangered species and threatening federal officials. Instead of rebukes and arrests, Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, the Republican frozen food magnate, called them heroes. They even got reimbursed for their trouble to the tune of $4 million.
The national press corps viewed this summer-long riot as a kind of quaint rural dust up, not much different than a fractious rodeo. At the time, the irrigators had conned the press into reporting that the water releases were all about saving the endangered suckerfish, a decidedly unsexy species also faced with extinction. The word salmon rarely made an appearance. In fact, the entire river system is a mess, on the brink of ecological collapse.
Last spring, the Bush crowd decided that the Klamath farmers could have all the water they wanted, regardless of the consequences for salmon. In a March ceremony, Gale Norton presided over the diversion of water to the irrigators. The tribes and environmentalists showed up to protest. But it was to no avail.
This summer was one of the driest and hottest on record. Biologists and tribes pleaded with Norton to release more water for the salmon. She refused. The Bush administration took the surrealistic position that fish don’t need water. It’s a position they still cling to. “If there is some evidence it’s a problem, we’ll take a hard look at it,” said John Keys, director of the Bureau of Reclamation, only last week. “We’ve been saying since last year that we’re not sure more water would do the fish any good.”
By August the temperature of the depleted waters of the Klamath River exceeded 70 degrees, a number considered lethal for migratory salmon. As the chinook and coho ascended the broiling river, they became disoriented, lethargic and began to perish from a host of diseases. Federal fisheries biologist Tom Shaw told his superiors that river conditions were “extremely lethal.” His warnings were ignored.
“They played Russian roulette with our fish and our fish lost,” says Troy Fletcher of the Yurok Tribe.
It wasn’t so much a game, as a gameplan. All along the irrigators had plotted the final doom of the salmon, which were a looming impediment to their increasingly frail economic condition. With the troublesome fish out of the way, they believe that their precious system of dams, pumps and irrigation ditches will be safe from the lawsuits of the environmentalists and the tribes.
Now the dead fish are being scooped up with bulldozers and trucked to a plant in Eureka, California where they will be rendered into fertilizer and no doubt end up back on some of the very fields that lead to their demise.
Somebody should swipe a few of those carcasses from the banks of the Klamath, ship them to Washington and stuff them under Gale Norton’s front porch, so that the unique odor of rotting salmon will haunt her the rest of her days.