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Klamath Report Calls for Broader Approach to Saving Fish

By Kat Kerlin on October 21, 2003 in

Instead of focusing primarily on how water levels and flows affect endangered and threatened fish in Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River, federal agencies charged with protecting the fish should pay greater attention to other causes of harm, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council.

The report comes today from a committee asked by the Bush administration to assess the Klamath Basin situation after federal agencies cut off irrigation water to farmers in 2001 in an attempt to save the endangered fish during a drought. In the ensuing battles, the basin became a national flashpoint for controversy over the Endangered Species Act.

The 12-person committee of science, law and economics experts includes two faculty members from the University of California, Davis. They are Peter Moyle, an authority on Pacific Coast native fishes, and Jeffrey Mount, an authority on river management and restoration.

"We found that the prevailing scientific sentiment in the basin -- 'More water is better for fish' -- was the wrong approach," Mount said. "Instead, what matters to the survival of these fish, and to the many others at risk in the basin, is where the water is, when it's there, what its quality is, and what the habitats are like."

"The scientists in the basin have collected lots of great information but there has been a tendency to use the data to demonstrate that more water was needed for the endangered fish, rather than looking at alternative explanations," added Moyle.

The research council's Committee on Threatened and Endangered Fishes of the Klamath Basin devoted 18 months of volunteer time to extensive review and re-analysis of decades worth of data about the ecosystems of this 12,000-square-mile watershed. The diverse ecosystems include high elevation desert lakes like Upper Klamath Lake in Southern Oregon, and rugged snowmelt-fed tributary streams like the Shasta and Trinity rivers, in California.

The committee considered studies and reports from biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which are the two federal agencies charged with preserving the fish listed under the Endangered Species Act; from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is the federal agency managing the Klamath Project; and from other federal, Oregon and California agencies, consulting biologists and academic scientists.

They considered the fishes' life-cycle needs and populations; basin water quality; and the basin's many concurrent uses, which include farming, grazing, timber harvest, hydroelectric production and recreation.

In the final report, the committee indicated that some adjustments (such as increased summer flows down the river) were needed to the operation of the Klamath Project, which delivers irrigation water to 220,000 acres of farmland, but not adjustments as severe as those originally proposed by the fisheries agencies. However, the committee identified even more strongly the need for other kinds of initiatives to protect the fish, such as habitat improvement, cooler summer water temperatures in tributaries, removal of dams that block fish migration, and changes in the management of hatcheries.

In 2001, both federal fisheries agencies issued "biological opinions" under the Endangered Species Act, in effect ordering the Bureau of Reclamation to maintain higher water levels to protect endangered shortnose suckers and Lost River suckers and higher flows to protect threatened coho salmon.

In its interim report, released in February 2002, the Research Council committee found no substantial scientific support for the fisheries agencies' requirements, or for lower minimum water levels that the bureau had proposed. In this final report from the committee, it reiterated those conclusions.

The committee's report covers an array of problems, such as excessive growth of algae and depleted oxygen levels in Upper Klamath Lake, dams that block spawning migrations, competition from hatchery fish, excessive sediment in streams, loss of stream bank vegetation, and high water temperatures in the summer.

It also emphasizes the need for a multi-species, or ecosystem, approach to management because there are many other fishes in the basin that are declining and are either on the road to being listed or are species that are important in tribal fisheries.

"Our main conclusion is that you can't fix Upper Klamath Lake, although there are some good things that can be done to the Klamath River," said Moyle. "The main solutions lie in the tributaries, and the Shasta River is our favorite. It is fixable in a way that others aren't.

"It once flowed all summer, crystal-clear cold water, and had huge runs of coho salmon, Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. If you reduced its use for irrigated pasture and alfalfa fields, that would lower its temperature. If you removed Dwinnell Dam, you'd increase access to spawning and young-fish habitat. That sort of system approach is what's needed in the Klamath Basin."

"For too long, Klamath managers have relied on fixing their problems by turning only one knob -- the knob of raising and lowering water levels in Upper Klamath Lake and in the river. They need to take new approaches that support multiple populations of fish and healthy ecosystems throughout the watershed" said Mount.

Other specific actions the committee recommended included:

  • Healthy sucker populations in lakes such as Clear Lake and Gerber Lake should be preserved and protected. Water should be restored to Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake to support suckers there.
  • The Chiloquin Dam on the Sprague River should be removed. Approximately 12 feet tall, it blocks as much as 90 percent of the spawning habitat for suckers above Upper Klamath Lake.
  • All other diversions that capture suckers from tributaries or lakes should be either removed, screened or remodeled to reduce fish mortality.
  • To help coho salmon, cool water should be procured in tributaries -- by purchasing, leasing or trading for groundwater -- and woody vegetation should be restored to provide shade.
  • Large dams, such as Iron Gate Dam and Dwinnell Dam, should be evaluated for removal in order to provide access to cool tributary spawning grounds.
  • The two current fish-hatchery operations should be re-evaluated. "We saw no reasonable evidence that the hatcheries are contributing to the recovery of wild salmon in the system," said Moyle. "Hatchery fish are bigger than wild fish. When millions are released into the Klamath River, the hatchery fish can either compete with or prey on the smaller wild fish, especially in the few good places where there is cold water in summer." He suggests that one hatchery be closed for a three-year period -- the typical life span of a coho salmon -- and the results be studied.
  • The two fisheries agencies should use their authority to modify forestry and road-construction activities on federal lands that are causing damage to fish habitat.
  • The agencies should expand their efforts to reduce "takings," or harm, of coho on private land.
  • Recovery teams for suckers and salmon should be established, guided by master plans and reviewed by outside experts every three years. The recovery-team scientists should frequently publish their key findings in peer-reviewed journals.

The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides advice to the federal government on science and technology under a congressional charter.

The University of California is one of the world's foremost research and teaching institutions, and UC Davis is the University of California's flagship campus for environmental studies. UC Davis is a global leader in environmental studies relating to endangered species management; water and air pollution; water and land use; agricultural practices; invasive plants and animals; climate change; resource economics; information technology; and human society and culture. One in six of UC Davis' 1,500 faculty members specializes in an environment-related subject.

Copies of the committee's final report, "Endangered and Threatened Fishes in the Klamath River Basin: Causes of Decline and Strategies for Recovery," will be available to the public early next year from the National Academies Press. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the National Research Council news office, (202) 334-2138;

Media contact(s)

Kat Kerlin, Research news (emphasis on environmental sciences), 530-752-7704,

Peter Moyle, Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, (530) 752-6355,

Jeffrey Mount, Geology, (530) 752-7092,

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