(CNSNews.com) - In one of the nation's most bitter disputes over water rights, the Bush administration must now defend a decision that was intended to help farmers in Oregon's Klamath River Basin, but may also have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of chinook and steelhead salmon.
Indian tribes and fishermen say the Bush administration diverted water away from the Klamath Lake to farms for irrigation, but in doing so starved the Klamath River and the salmon swimming upstream.
Steve Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, confirmed that more than 20,000 fall run chinook and steelhead salmon died unexpectedly as they were running up the Klamath River during the past several weeks, but the die-off appears to be ending.
"Based on counts in the last couple of days, the die-offs are declining," he noted in a telephone press conference Wednesday. "We hope to have a final estimate available in the next few days."
More than 95 percent of the dead fish have been adult fall run chinook. Other affected fish include Klamath small-scale sucker, speckled dace, green sturgeon, sculpin, and coho salmon, the only affected species on the federal endangered list. Die-offs occurred between 11 and 16 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.
Most salmon appeared to have suffocated due to bacterial and protozoan infections, which damage the fish's gills. These pathogens commonly occur throughout the Klamath River, but usually do not result in significant numbers of mortalities, Williams said.
The Klamath River is now the focus of intense interest from responsible U.S. agencies: The Fish and Wildlife Service for endangered fish; the U.S. Geological Service for the river water flow; the Bureau of Reclamation for the Klamath Basin Irrigation Project; the Bureau of Indian Affairs for tribal fishing rights; and the National Marine Fisheries Service for the monitoring of ocean fish, including salmonids which are born in rivers and grow up in oceans. Biologists for the tribes and the California Department of Fish and Game also are studying the die-off.
Environmentalists, biologists for Indian tribes and a small commercial fishing group believe farm use of water in the Klamath Basin Project, 200 miles from the river's mouth, is responsible for the low water flow and fish die-off, but Williams said biologists need more information before reaching a conclusion.
The Bureau of Reclamation doubled the rate of water released from the Iron Gate Dam below the Klamath Irrigation Project beginning Saturday, Sept. 28, but the rate of fish deaths had begun to decline several days before that water got to the mortality area.
"Given the limited data, we consider it premature to draw conclusions," Williams said. "We want to base any decision now and in the future on solid science."
Among possible causes are low water volume, warm water, and overcrowding due to large fish runs. Overcrowding is a distinct possibility, since the National Marine Fisheries Service forecast on the fall chinook run alone was for 132,600 adults to return to the river as spawners.
The reason for Williams' emphasis on careful study before identifying a cause of the die-off is clear.
The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was embarrassed early this year when a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel found there was not enough scientific evidence to back up the FWS' biological opinions issued in 2001 that served as the basis for the Bureau of Reclamation cutting off all irrigation water for Klamath farmers.
Farmers protested vigorously throughout the summer, arguing that the opinions were seriously flawed, but got no relief until the NAS panel finding was released. Farmers have received nearly all of their traditional water allotment during this irrigation season, which ended in September.
Also sitting in on Wednesday's conference was Sue Ellen Wooldridge, deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of the Interior and the department's point person on the Klamath Basin project. She said the Bureau of Reclamation is in a Catch-22, since the bureau must keep a certain amount of water in the Upper Klamath Lake to protect sucker fish, while at the same time releasing enough water downstream to protect coho.