Juvenile chinook salmon from the Klamath River in 2015.

In Klamath River Drought, a Massive Juvenile Salmon Die-Off

The video shows clear river water washing over rocks as sunlight dances in the shallows. Small slivers of white that look like leaves float on the surface. But they aren’t leaves; they’re the bodies of juvenile salmon, most of them no longer than a finger, dead from a warm-water disease exacerbated by drought on the Klamath River. The caption to the video, filmed by Yurok Vice Chairman Frankie Joe Myers, is stark: “This is what climate change looks like when we don’t act.”

Fish have been dying on the Klamath since around May 4, according to the Yurok Tribal Fisheries Department. At that time, 97 percent of the juvenile salmon caught by the department’s in-river trapping device were infected with the disease C. shasta, and were either dead, or would die within days. Over a two-week period, 70 percent of the juvenile salmon caught in the trap were dead.

This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

This spring, the Klamath Basin is already in extreme and exceptional drought — one of the worst drought years in four decades. Irrigators upriver from the fish kill were told in mid-May that for the first time since “A” Canal in the Klamath Project began operating in 1907, they would not receive any water from it. The irrigators say they need 400,000 acre-feet of water but this year, they will receive just 33,000 acre-feet from the Klamath Project — a historic low. The situation has put pressure on an embattled region already caught in a cyclical mode of crisis due to a drying climate. “For salmon people, a juvenile fish kill is an absolute worst-case scenario,” Myers said in a statement.

In a statement about this year’s drought, Klamath Irrigation District President Ty Kliewer said, “This just couldn’t be worse. The impacts to our family farms and these rural communities will be off the scale.”

Last summer was also dry, and farmers and their supporters held a tractor convoy to protest the lack of water and the Bureau of Reclamation’s allocation decisions. Meanwhile, the Yurok Tribe’s Boat Dance ceremony was cancelled because of low flows last August, and after a dry winter, heated litigation around water allocation persists. This week, several irrigators set up an encampment by the Klamath Project head gates, which have been forced open by irrigators during past droughts. “This drought is not a fluke event,” Yurok citizen and tribal counsel Amy Cordalis testified in a House hearing on the ongoing drought in the West this week. “It is part of a larger pattern of drought brought on by climate change. Climate change is no longer some vague future threat — we are seeing its effects happening now, in real time.”

Around 70 percent of the juvenile salmon collected by the Yurok Fisheries Department have been dead, killed by a warm water disease accelerated by drought. Visual: Teresa Mitchell / Yurok Tribe
Yurok Vice Chairman Frankie Myers on the Klamath River with the Yurok Fisheries Department’s fish disease monitoring team while they documented the recent die-off. Visual: Matt Mais / Yurok Tribe

Wet years used to be the norm, and dry years were uncommon, but in recent years that’s changed, especially since 2014, said Barry McCovey Jr., Yurok Fisheries Department director and Yurok citizen, who has studied fish disease on the Klamath for 20 years. This year’s drought is part of the new climate regime the basin is shifting into. “Good water years where there’s plenty of water to satisfy all the needs of the basin are rare now,” McCovey said.

With the forecast so grim so early in the year, communities are already seeking aid. A first round of drought relief allocated $15 million for irrigators, and $3 million for the Klamath Basin tribes, though the tribes — along with commercial fishermen and nonprofits — have requested $250 million in relief. In a virtual forum this May with Congressional representatives, Ben DuVal, president of the Board of Directors of the Klamath Water Users Association, called for a settlement agreement to bring “long-term stability” to the basin. “It can be done; it has been done elsewhere,” he said. Such agreements have been attempted in the past with varying degrees of success, though one of the last major efforts, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, never made it through Congress. (The Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement is still in effect, and details the removal of four dams on the Klamath) 

Large-scale agreements like that requires significant federal involvement. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) has indicated her interest in Klamath issues, but has not yet talked about an agreement. In April, acknowledging the impact of climate change and the difficult summer ahead, she reversed a number of memos and assessments by the Trump administration, saying they were issued without tribal consultation and don’t reflect the current administration’s goals. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., has urged Haaland to appoint a “Klamath czar” — a “high-level operative who can make quick and important decisions.” The planned removal of four dams on the Klamath, meanwhile, is still awaiting approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The ongoing fish kill is reminiscent of the traumatic 2002 die-off, in which 60,000 fall run adult chinook salmon died of disease because of low water in the Klamath. The optics that year were much more dramatic — the bodies of the fish were everywhere, piled on the banks of the river, floating downriver — but the mass death of juveniles means they’ll never make it out to the ocean, and never get a chance to lay their eggs. Given the life cycle of a salmon, it also guarantees that the salmon run years from now will be abysmal. “Everyone’s going to keep on suffering if we don’t come up with a plan that works moving forward,” McCovey said. “And we don’t have much time left.”