Monday, November 28, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Hoopa Tribe Fights Feds to Keep Salmon Alive

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Bungled federal management of stream flows contribute to a lethal disease that's infected 90 percent of juvenile coho salmon on sections of the Klamath River, the Hoopa Valley Tribe claims in court.

The tribe sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the National Marine Fisheries Service on July 29 in Federal Court.

The 2,700-member Hoopa Valley Tribe, in Humboldt County, includes the unincorporated village of Hoopa. Tribal members accounted for 82 percent of the village's 3,040 population, according to the 2000 census. They have fishing rights on the Klamath River by treaty.

The Hoopa claim the federal agencies' Klamath Irrigation Project violates the Endangered Species Act by harming protected coho salmon already ravaged by Ceratomyxa Shasta (C.shasta), exacerbated by low levels in the river.

The tribe wants water deliveries restricted until a new study is completed on how best to protect the fishery.

The Klamath River originates east of the Cascade Mountains and flows 263 miles through Southern Oregon and Northern California to the Pacific Ocean.

Since 1996, the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Project has supplied water to 210,000 acres of cropland and to four wildlife refuges operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service: Lower Klamath, Tule Lake, Clear Lake, and Upper Klamath.

The Bureau of Reclamation plans the minimum flow level of the river, making sure to supply enough water for agriculture. According to the complaint, the Bureau of Reclamation's 2016 Annual Operations Plan calculates that 388,680 acre-feet of water will be supplied to the Klamath Project.

The Hoopa Valley Reservation is the largest in California, on 89,400 acres in northeast Humboldt County, along the Trinity River. The Hoopa Tribe holds property rights in the Klamath River Basin and the federally reserved fishing rights include a corresponding right to have enough water in the Klamath and Trinity rivers to support a productive habitat for coho and Chinook salmon.

"These fish have been essential to our culture, religion and economy since time immemorial," Hoopa Valley Tribal Council Chairman Ryan Jackson told Courthouse News in a statement.

But the dams built along the Klamath River have taken a toll.

The Klamath and its major tributaries such as the Trinity used to be abundant with salmon, with as many 500,000 fish in the early 1900s, according to a 2009 NMFS report to Congress on the Klamath River Basin.

However, "only remnant populations of wild spring run Chinook salmon return to the Klamath River Basin today due to the presence of dams without fish passage," the Fisheries Service found.

Chinook salmon are anadromous, spending several years in the ocean before returning to fresh water in their home rivers to spawn. Coho, or silver salmon, have a similar life cycle, but use smaller streams and tributaries to spawn, making them more susceptible to dying in low water, which, in addition to being more difficult to navigate, is warmer than deeper water.

The problem has been recognized for decades. In 1980, the salmon population fell to less than 50,000, according to the 2009 report. So in 1984 Congress enacted the Trinity River Basin Fish and Wildlife Management Act, to develop a management program to restore the salmon population.


In 1986, Congress enacted the Klamath Basin Fishery Resources Restoration Act, and the numbers that year had climbed back to more than 200,000. Unfortunately, they fell again and by 1992 there were only about 20,000 salmon left in the Klamath.

In 2002, the NMFS issued a 107-page Biological Opinion on Klamath Project Operations. Its conclusion was that if nothing changed, it would "jeopardize the existence of southern Oregon/northern California coho salmon."

To mitigate the problems, a water bank and water supply enhancement program for the Klamath River were to be created, among other measures. In 2007, President George W. Bush signed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act, requiring the NMFS to prepare a recovery plan for the salmon.

An updated Biological Opinion was issued in 2013 and this time the NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that the low stream flows caused by Klamath Project make the salmon more susceptible to C. Shasta.

It was then determined that no more than 50 percent of the total annual Chinook salmon juveniles in the Klamath River between Shasta River and Trinity River should be infected from May until July. If they were, a formal consultation process would be initiated and a new plan created.

But the infection rate in 2014 was estimated at 81 percent, and it rose to 91 percent in 2015. So the tribe is demanding a new consultation.

"The harm caused by the Bureau of Reclamation's and National Marine Fisheries Service's failure to protect coho salmon is driving this federally protected fish and our tribe to extinction," Chairman Jackson said. "Federal irrigation project and private dam operators on the Klamath River divert and store water, leaving less for fish. The water that remains is warmer than tolerable for salmon and polluted with nutrients and chemicals. Under those conditions, fish are vulnerable to diseases they ordinarily would have survived."

For decades, the federal government has had a difficult time balancing the demands from farmers for more water while keeping the river flow high enough for salmon to survive. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in May 2001 that about 10,000 farmers had protested cutbacks in irrigation water to protect salmon.

According to the Oxford Journal BioScience, the agricultural losses that year were estimated to be more than $200 million, as potato fields turned to barren dust. The Bush administration then changed course, diverting water to farms and dropping the river so low in 2002 that more than 30,000 salmon died, trapped in warm, shallow water.

Since then, the struggle has raged on. In April, an historic agreement was made to remove four dams on the Klamath by 2020, hailed by the U.S. Department of the Interior as one of the largest river restoration efforts in the nation's history. State and federal officials signed a separate agreement with irrigation interests, the 2016 Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement, committing the government to helping farmers cope with the impacts.

However, the dams will be operated as usual until they are removed. Another die-off like the one in 2002 would be devastating.

"For several years now, we have attempted to engage with the federal agencies regarding improvements to Klamath Basin management," Jackson said. "It is unfortunate that it will require this lawsuit to gain their attention. However, this action is unavoidable if we are to protect our fishery resources for future generations."

Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Shane Hunt said he could not comment on pending litigation.

The Hoopa seek declaratory judgment and an injunction to prevent irreparable harm.

They are represented by Thomas Schlosser with Morisset, Schlosser, Jozwiak and Somerville in Seattle; and George Forman in San Rafael.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.