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Yurok Tribe Denounces Interior Department’s Salmon Killers

Over 200 members of the Yurok Tribe and their supporters came to the Hilton Hotel in Sacramento on July 10 to protest U.S. Department of Interior policies that resulted in last September’s Klamath River fish kill.

As Bennett Raley, the Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, and Bureau of Reclamation officials conducted their Sacramento Regional Conference, “Water 2025,” the tribe denounced federal officials for not inviting them to participate in a panel about the future of the Klamath and other Western watersheds. The tribe and supporters said that the current desperate water situation in the Klamath Basin cannot wait 20 years for a solution.

“I’m frustrated and mad about how the Department of Interior acknowledges the tribe’s senior water rights, but didn’t even invite the tribe to participate in the conference panel,” said Susan Masten, Chair of the Yurok Tribe. “We’re tired of the rhetoric–the government has a legal obligation to the Yurok people. The Klamath is considered by the American Rivers organization to be the nation’s second most threatened river, but we’re not even invited to be part of the solutions.”

The five member panel featured four irrigation district leaders but only one environmental representative and no tribal representatives. The panelists included Dan Keppen, Executive Director of the Klamath Water Users Association; Van Tenney, General Manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District; Steve Hall, Executive Director of California Water Agencies; and Ane Deister, General Manager of the El Dorado Irrigation District.

Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, dismissed the tribe’s accusations, saying, “we welcome the tribe to protest. In the conference, we are hopeful that we will come up with new, creative ideas in the West looking to avoid what happened on the Klamath. We identified potential problem areas and tools by which we can hopefully resolve these problems.”

However, the Yurok tribe considered the conference to be a sham and blasted “the government’s “environmentally racist, divisive and ill planned mismanagement of Klamath River water.”

“This is not a fish versus potatoes issue,” Masten said. “This is an issue for families up and down the river and the coast. People depend on the Klamath salmon for their survival in a community where there is no electricity or phones and 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty level.”

“I don’t ever want to witness a fish kill like last year’s, when over 34,000 salmon died. We can’t wait until 2025–we have to find real solutions to the Klamath crisis today,” she added.

Representatives of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, Sierra Club, Friends of the River and United Anglers of California joined the Yuroks in their protest and press conference. The Yuroks held up a variety of colorful signs, including a big photo of the fish kill last year with the message, “BOR Kills Fish, 2002,” above it.

Eric Wesselmen of the Sierra Club said the conference was “all window dressing,” with no substance or depth. “Unless the Bureau deals with the root causes of fishery declines, ‘Water 2025’ completely misses the point,” he said.

Craig Tucker, outreach director of Friends of the River, said the Klamath River historically had the third largest chinook (king) salmon run in the continental United States, with salmon runs ranging from 600,000 to 1,100,000 fish. Now an average of 120,000 fish return to spawn.

Their condemnation of Klamath River management is backed up by the scientific community and the state Resources Secretary. The consensus of the scientific community is that the fish kill of 2002 was the direct result of poor management of Klamath water by the federal government that diverted water to Klamath Basin farmers in 2002. In an open letter to the Secretaries of Commerce and Interior, the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society (WDAFS), representing over 3,700 fisheries scientists and biologists, criticized Klamath Basin management.

“The WDAFS believes that the recent fish kill, where over 34,000 fish died, including over 32,500 chinook salmon, should be taken as a clear warning signal that current management strategies are inadequate to protect the fisheries of the Klamath River,” they said.

In a letter to Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, Mary Nichols of the California Resources Agency also charged that the 2003 Klamath Project Operations Plan did not reflect any change in the 10 year plan and flow schedule put in place last year. The Resources Secretary asked Norton to craft a new plan focusing on the recovery and sustainability of the entire Klamath Basin, not just one species.

A draft US Geological Survey report estimates that restoring historic water flows in the Klamath River would generate an economic benefit 30 times greater than providing the water to irrigators. The report estimated the cost of restoring the basin at $5 billion, but said that recreation and fishing activities could create about $36 billion in economic activity.

It’s clear that we need balanced solutions to the problems of the Klamath Basin. Unfortunately, this year’s Klamath Basin Operations Plan provides no sense of balance and provides the same flow regime that resulted in the fish kill of September 2002.

Among the solutions to the crisis suggested by the tribes and supporters include: o better predictive capabilities for the Bureau of Reclamation. o reform of the Klamath Basin Operations Plan. o continued work with irrigators to conserve water. o Bureau of Reclamation support of voluntary buy-outs from willing irrigators and voluntary efforts to restore the Klamath Basin currently taking place in the FERC relicensing process.

If similar weather conditions occur this fall when fall run chinook and coho salmon return to spawn, we could see a repeat of the fisheries disaster that took place on the lower Klamath last year. The Department of Interior must listen to the tribes, anglers and environmental groups and take action now.

“I hope the recent demonstration brings attention to the needs of fish and the tribe,” said Melissa Star-Myers, a tribal forestry worker and fisher who held a sign saying, “What About Tribal Families,” at the protest. “We had just finished our Jump Dance last September when all of these dead fish began showing up in front of my house on the river. All of my dogs died from eating the dead, diseased fish. It was sickening–we had to bury all of the fish in big holes–a shame when you consider the hungry people all over America and the world.”

DAN BACHER can be reached at: danielbacher@hotmail.com

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Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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