Thousands of Klamath Fish Die After
Power Company Shuts Off Water
by Dan Bacher
October 4, 2003
Another die off of salmon and steelhead took place during the week marking the first anniversary of the Klamath River fish kill of 2002.
The lower Klamath River this September escaped from experiencing a huge fish kill like the one that took place on the lower river last year, due to political pressure from anglers and the Hoopa Tribe to release cold water down the Trinity River in late August. Over 34,000 fish died in the worst fish kill in U.S. history after the Department of Interior, at the direction of Gail Norton, diverted water to corporate agribusiness in the Klamath Basin.
However, thousands of juvenile steelhead and king salmon, the survivors of last year’s disaster, died on the morning of September 19 after water to a rearing pond at Fall Creek Fish Hatchery was mysteriously cut off by power plant maintenance workers.
Before water was restored, over 40,000 yearling chinook averaging 4 inches and 28,000 juvenile steelhead averaging 2 inches died during the water shutoff by the Pacific Power Company. No endangered coho salmon perished.
The steelhead represent less than half a percent of the hatchery’s year total production goal of 6,000,000 chinook, according to Bob Wakefield, assistant manager of the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery. However, the steelhead lost represent around 12 percent of the total annual hatchery population of 200,000 yearlings, a significant loss for the Klamath River fishery.
The Fall Creek facility is used by the DFG to raise fish spawned at the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery, located below Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath. The Portland-based company operates the Fall Creek Powerhouse, a 2.2 megawatt facility built in 1907 that is fed by Fall Creek, a Klamath River tributary. After the water goes through the hydroelectric turbines, it is diverted through the hatchery and then empties into Iron Gate Reservoir.
“The steelhead we lost were taken from fish spawned later in the season,” said Wakefield. “We put the fish in the Fall Creek facility because the water there is warmer and the fish grow faster. We want to release the fish at a similar size into the river and this allows them to catch up with the fish spawned earlier in our season.”
How did the fish kill occur? The power company still doesn’t have an answer. A crew was doing maintenance work on one of the power plant’s generators when the shut off occurred, according to John Coney, spokesman for PacificCorp, the parent company of Pacific Power Company.
“Somehow all of the water that goes from the power plant into the fish hatchery was cut,” he stated. “This wasn’t supposed to happen - and we don’t know why it did.”
When it was discovered that water was shut off, the utility was able to supply water from an alternative water source, “B Dam,” but there was a 35 to 40 minute lag until when the water was restored to the hatchery rearing ponds.
“We restored water to the other ponds in time to save the fish, but weren’t able to save the fish in the sixth pond,” said Coney.
As a condition for their FERC licensing agreement to run the power plant, the utility’s total mitigation goal for steelhead is 200,000 fish per year. The fish kill will force production to drop below this goal.
“We have started an internal investigation into the water shut-off to make sure that an incident like this never happens again,” stated Coney. “It’s an unfortunate event - nobody likes to see something like this happen. We want to put the appropriate mechanism in place to stop an incident like this from ever taking place again.”
The recent fish kill shows the fragileness of the Klamath River watershed - and how one human mistake can result in the loss of thousands of fish to the river, Klamath River tribes, recreational anglers and commercial fishermen. What is particularly sad is that all of these fish lost in the power company snafu were the survivors of last year’s fish kill.
On September 26, a week after the latest fish kill on the Klamath, the Yurok Tribe, Friends of the River, Sierra Club and California State Resources Agency officials marked the one year anniversary with a press conference and rally at the west steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento. They urged federal officials to take actions to prevent more fish kills from happening in the future.
"As we have in the past, we again call on the federal government to work with all parties to develop solutions to address the many issues in the Klamath River," said California Secretary of Resources Mary Nichols. "A basin-wide solution will need to address the needs not only of the agricultural interests, but also the Yurok and other Tribes in the watershed, coastal communities dependent on the ocean fishery, landowners, environmental groups, local governments, and both Oregon and California."
Nichols also asked Bush Administration officials to complete and release a key lower river flow study, the "Hardy Study Phase II.” This study has been stalled by Department of Interior officials for over 22 months.
Congressman Mike Thompson also urged the federal government to release this study. "The lives of those who depend on this region's natural resources need and deserve balanced solutions based on sound science, not political gamesmanship,” said Thompson in a written statement.
Thompson and Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon are coauthors of H.R. 1760, the "Klamath River Basin Restoration and Emergency Assistance Act," designed to resolve many of the basin’s water over-allocation problems. This legislation needs the support of everybody concerned about the restoration of salmon and steelhead fisheries on the Klamath River.
Daniel Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical songwriter from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org