Klamath Salmon Upriver!

Construction of electricity producing dams in the early twentieth century, removed about 600 miles of Klamath River Basin streambeds from salmon and steelhead production. This has left Southeastern Oregon without the runs that were once the third largest on the West Coast. The long missing anadromous fish runs of the Upper Klamath Basin were illegally destroyed; they are integral to contemporary Northwest and Native American cultures, and must be restored to the Klamath River drainage above Irongate dam.

    “Fish Passage Conditions on the Upper Klamath River,” (FPCUKR), is a report prepared by Fishpro for the Karuk Tribe and PacifiCorp. It refers to Congress having passed the “Klamath Act” in October, 1986, prescribing the 20-year restoration of Klamath River Basin fisheries to “optimal levels.” (FPCUKR, 1-2) Ocean going, or anadromous, runs into the upper basin have not yet been re-established to any degree. It is now impossible to meet the provisions of the “Klamath Act”, because salmon need at least three years to mature before returning to natal streams to reproduce. (FPCUKR, 3-4) PacifiCorp has been in the process of applying to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), to obtain a new license for the hydro-electric projects on the Klamath River. The application has been submitted, and a decision is due in 2007. This decision will decide the fate of these runs that have been missing for nearly a century.

    A letter written by the Klamath Indian Agency Superintendent on June 24, 1942 is quoted in “The Copco Dams and the Fisheries of the Klamath Tribe.” An excerpt reads:

Clayton Kirk states that he is certain the salmon stopped coming to the reservation waters in the year 1909 for that is the year he married and he expected to secure a large part of his family’s food from the salmon in the Sprague River. The disappointment of not finding any salmon running in the river that year, he says, definitely impresses the date upon his mind.[sic]

    Misdirected fisheries management efforts resulted in construction of racks in the Klamath River in 1910. These racks were built to capture and preserve the last run. It was thought that runs could be maintained, or even enhanced by artificial spawning, and placing fertilized eggs in supposedly suitable water. It seems the fisheries managers of the time expected the runs to be wiped out. (CDFKT, 137-138)

The first dam was built in the years between 1911 and 1918. By the time that it was completed, anadromous fish were no longer able to pass into the upper Klamath River or into the headwater spawning streams of the Klamath Basin. Although the builders of the dam promised to provide fish passage facilities, none were built. Instead, in accordance with the provisions in California law, a fish hatchery was built downstream from the dam. There was purportedly an agreement between the departments of fish and game of California and Oregon for this hatchery to provide Trout and Salmon to Oregon to compensate for the fish loss suffered by Oregon (The Copco dams and the fisheries of the Klamath Tribes, CDFKT, pg. 1).

    In 1918, Copco 1 dam was completed, finishing a seven year project. Fish passage facilities were not incorporated. This isolated up to 65 percent of the suitable spawning habitat in the Klamath Basin from anadromous fish runs.

    A major paradigm of pioneer society was unchecked exploitation of what were thought to be boundless natural resources. As technology progressed in the early twentieth century, Western-American society’s ability to exploit natural resources increased considerably. The exploitation mentality was so prevalent that conservation of other resources developed more slowly than industrial technologies. The positive effects must have seemed to overshadow environmental concerns. This mentality is represented in the local settlers by this excerpt from an old Klamath Falls newspaper:

Parties coming in from Keno state that the run of salmon in the Klamath River this year is the heaviest it has ever known. There are millions of the fish below the falls near Keno, and it is said that a man with a gaff could easily land a hundred of the salmon in an hour, in fact they could be caught as fast as a man could pull them in…There is a natural rock dam across the river below Keno, which it [sic] is almost impossible for the fish to get over. In their effort to do so thousands of fine salmon are so bruised and spotted by the rocks that they become worthless. There is no spawning ground until they reach the Upper Lake as the river at this point is very swift and rocky. [sic] (Front page article titled: “Millions of Salmon Cannot Reach Lake on Account Rocks in River at Keno” Klamath Falls Evening Herald, 24 September 1908 qtd. in Distribution of anadromous fishes in the Upper Klamath river watershed prior to hydropower dams- a synthesis of the historical evidence, DAFUKR)

    One of the most significant environmental and sociological effects of hydro-electric development was loss of anadromous fisheries. The Klamath projects were among the most destructive. A fisheries status report states, “Prior to dam construction, anadromous fish runs accessed spawning, incubation, and rearing habitat in about 970 km (600 miles) of river and stream channel above the site of Iron Gate Dam.” (DAFUKR 3)

    Fish passage facilities were required, but nothing was ever done to accommodate these requirements. Without Oregon’s official consent, California law allowed hatchery facilities to be built instead. None of these facilities have ever proved adequate. Very little was done following completion of the first dam to maintain any part of Klamath River fisheries.

An egg taking station was later added by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. In 1925, the terminus for upstream fish migration moved downstream from Copco 1 by one-quarter mile with the construction of Copco 2 dam, an egg collecting station was constructed at Fall Creek and conveyed to the state of California. During negotiations between the California Fish and Game and the California Oregon Power Company regarding the construction of Copco 1 dam, a decision was made to construct a fish hatchery in lieu of a fish-way over the dam.”[sic] (FPCUKR, 1-1)

    “A hatchery was built on Fall Creek and operated until 1948, when it was discontinued as uneconomical.” (qtd. FERC 1963, Opinion No. 381, FPCUKR) A new hatchery was not constructed until 1962, seven miles downstream, after the construction of Irongate dam. These efforts proved severely lacking from the perspective of downriver inhabitants, as well as upriver.

    Effects of salmon and steelhead loss on the peoples of the Klamath are hard to quantify and obscured by a century. The exploitation mentality seemed to blind developers to the plight of the indigenous peoples of the Klamath. Lower river tribes are left, to this day, trying to balance their communities’ need for healthy food with dwindling, genetically deficient, and disease stricken runs. Effects were, and are still being, realized hundreds of miles inland. Tribes upstream of the dams were left without a form of sustenance; one utilized for millennia. Klamath tribal member, James Johnson, born 1887, said:

From the time I was a very small boy of the age of seven years, I speared salmon at most of the fishing holes on the reservation. I remember distinctly spearing salmon when I was seven years old and having them drag me in the water. I speared salmon at Baking Powder Grade near Chiloquin, Oregon and at the junction of the Williamson and Sprague Rivers. I remember seeing many of the old Indians getting salmon at the junction of the Williamson and Sprague Rivers with willow net they prepared and dragged across the stream, stopping the salmon from going upstream until they had secured all of the salmon they needed for their own use and the use of their friends. Then these old people would remove the net and let the salmon to go up the Sprague River. I also caught salmon in the Sprague River with a spoon. I was very fond of salmon fishing. What salmon I caught and did not need my family would give to their friends. I would take between 300 and 400 salmon out of the reservation streams each and every fall during the salmon runs. These salmon would weigh between 30 and 80 pounds. The runs would generally last between 60 and 90 days, starting toward the end of August and lasting sometimes into October. These salmon provided a large part of the food supply consumed by Indians during the years the salmon ran up the streams. I would say that the salmon provided half of the food supply. [sic] (qtd. CDFKT, 60-61)

    There is no evidence that any consideration was given to the fish loss suffered by the Indians of the Upper Klamath, despite continued protests by the Indians, and by the officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs on their behalf. (CDFKT, 2)

    “Tribes, Fishermen, Conservationists Returning to Scotland to Argue Against Dams,” on the website klamathbasincrisis.org, reports:

Klamath River starts in Oregon, cuts through the Cascade Range, and flows through northwestern California to the Pacific Ocean. It once boasted the third-largest salmon runs on the West Coast, but now sees a fraction of those returns. Efforts to protect declining runs have forced steep cutbacks in Pacific salmon fishing. Tribes locked in poverty struggle to get enough fish to meet subsistence and ceremonial needs.[sic] The Karuk contend many of their health problems are related to the loss of salmon from their diet.

    It is evident that native peoples of the Upper Klamath Basin relied heavily on salmon for sustenance. The cultural loss to the tribes can not be adequately quantified. Euro-American, basin residents also felt the loss of these miraculous runs. Before the advent of refrigeration, a delivery of fresh seafood was just what the fledgling community of Linkville, now Klamath Falls, needed to flourish.

Photo courtesy US Bureau of Reclamation: Gentlemen display their catch while salmon fishing on the rapids of Link River, 1891

    Oregon State Fish Commission, PacificCorp, and other interested parties formed a committee in the sixties to examine Upper Klamath Basin anadromous run reintroduction options. “The Steering Committee subsequently indicated that it appeared to be biologically feasible to reestablish spring Chinook and steelhead in the Upper Klamath Basin as far as Upper Klamath Lake, since both species migrate at times when water quality conditions are satisfactory. (FPCUKR, 1-2) This report suggested sufficient spawning gravel for about 9,000 Spring Chinook, and 7,500 Steelhead. No action was taken by the committee citing downstream losses, upstream losses, difficulty finding suitable stocks, and difficulty establishing self-sustaining runs as insurmountable obstacles.

    If returning stocks could be established which return to Upper Klamath and Agency Lakes; they would be likely occur during cool water periods, so as to pass through the lake to the many tributaries. Some of these drainages incorporate hundreds of square miles. Within these subsystems of the Klamath are myriads of potential spawning, and rearing areas. Many would require improvements to grant passage, just as would the main-stem. A 1994 Winema National Forest map show the following potential habitats:

Wood River, Crooked Creek, Agency Creek, Williamson River, Spring Creek, Larkin Creek, Sprague River, Sycan River, Link River, Denny Creek, Short Creek, Odessa Creek, Four-Mile Creek, Harriman Creek, Recreation Creek, Crystal Creek, Thomson Creek, Rock Creek, Cheery Creek, Nannie Creek, Threemile Creek, another Fourmile, Crane Creek, another Short, and Sevenmile Creek.(USFS-USDA)

    These are listed is from the northern extreme of Agency Lake, and clockwise. It does not include all tributaries to those waterways listed. Also excluded are the many springs and aquifers potentially accessible to reestablished runs. Some could potentially provide for other anadromous species requiring lake-habitat for rearing, such as Sockeye.

    The “Klamath Act” requires the government, to carryout such actions as are necessary to:

  • improve and restore area habitats
  • promote access to blocked area habitats
  • support increased run sizes
  • improve upstream and downstream migration
  • remove obstacles to fish passage
  • provide facilities for avoiding obstacles
Current measures to protect and restore the anadromous fish runs of the Klamath River basin do not appear to be adequate. In order to restore anadromous fish to optimal levels, as prescribed in the Klamath Act, more progressive measures are needed to initiate both immediate and long term recovery.” (FPCUKR, 1-2)

    Interested parties are coming together in the last year before this momentous decision is due from FERC. Cooperating to pressure the powers that be to, finally, do the right thing. The major interests include: the tribes, professional fishermen, sport anglers, power companies, and irrigation organizations.

    As the 2006 Salmon Management Plan decisions loomed, the Herald and News reported on the Pacific Coast trawler fleets. Fishermen are asked to abide by decisions based on computer simulations with 50 percent error rates. “If trollers push for a season during a year of low Klamath River abundance, the industry could be blamed for harming the overall population health of the Chinook,” said Oregon State Salmon Commission, Advisory Panel Chairmen, Don Stevens. (Oregon Salmon Season Still A Hope, Newport Or., March 5, 2006, A9)

    The parties pushing for Upper Basin reintroduction assert that intensive efforts would result in more robust fisheries throughout the range of Klamath’s salmon. This idea seems perfectly obvious to those close to the situation, but may be labeled as conjecture. Anglers and others, who understand the stream conditions on the Klamath, will attest to the strength and abundance of suitable habitat therein. The size and numbers of the fresh-water fish, also hold testament to the miraculous natural strength of the Klamath system.

Fish caught by, and photo by Ken Sandusky
Fish caught by, and photo by Ken Sandusky
The sore is from a parasitic eel. The Lamprey is another of Klamath’s threatened landlocked species. Please notice the completely healed lamprey scar.

    Extensive changes have been effected to the Klamath Basin in the past century. The changes impacting fisheries are:

  • damming of the Klamath River
  • cutting off, drainage, and redirecting of the flow of lakes such as Lower Klamath and Tule
  • alteration of the level of Upper Klamath Lake
  • ditching and draining of marshes (Klamath Marsh from 75% to 10% open water)
  • logging of basin forests
  • dredging of water courses
  • agricultural chemical drainage
  • stream-banks damaged by livestock (CDFKT, 10-18)

    Some fear the negative impacts reintroduction could have on existing fisheries. Disease has been a problem in the lower river, and could be transported upstream; however there is no study to be readily found that lends credence to this opinion.

    Numerous environmental circumstances have put a focus on the Upper Klamath Basin. First, logging had to be curtailed to stem deforestation. Communities rebounded resiliently. Recently, irrigation restraints have brought light to water troubles in the west, especially Klamath country. The area’s farming industry is now adapting to the situation with unprecedented programs, which keep other people’s interests in mind. Now the time has come for the pendulum to swing, once again, in favor of nature and the people who would utilize anadromous fish for their sustenance.

    Positive effects would range from tribal ceremonies, to commercial harvest; from a simple day out with the kids, to outfitter excursions; from pictures in the family album, to nationally televised productions. Nature’s bounty can be returned to the Upper Klamath Basin. Anadromous runs, that were once some of the most prolific anywhere, must be reintroduced to the best of our collective ability. Growing awareness, changing mentalities, and a new generation will see to the reestablishment of anadromous runs.