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Fish Kill10 K Klamath Rv O R*

10,000 dead salmon heighten California water dispute

New York Times

Published Sep 28, 2002 SALM28

SEATTLE -- More than 10,000 chinook salmon have died in northern California's Klamath River in recent days, leaving biologists stunned and Indian tribes and fishermen angry at the Bush administration, which they say caused the deaths by favoring farmers in one of the most contentious water disputes in the West.

Federal officials, while not conceding that administration policy had anything to do with the deaths, said they would reverse an earlier policy and begin releasing water late Friday from Upper Klamath Lake in southern Oregon in an attempt to revitalize the Klamath River downstream. The river is littered with thousands of dead, bloated salmon, rotting in the sun.

Biologists say they have never seen a salmon kill of this size on the West Coast. It comes six months after the Bush administration decided to divert more Klamath Lake water to irrigation in the Klamath basin, saying the decision would satisfy farmers and comply with environmental laws.

Indian tribes and fishermen say the administration broke the law -- and starved the river -- by favoring farmers over fish.

"No matter what happens now, the damage is done. We could lose 30,000 fish," said David Hillemeier, a biologist with the Yurok Indian tribe in northern California.

Although biologists disagree on what caused the fish to die, they say a very warm September in the Pacific Northwest and low water flows in the Klamath River are the two major reasons the river is too low for fish to move upstream and spawn, as they would normally do at this time of year. Instead, the fish are crowded into small pools and dying of disease.

On Thursday, fishermen and environmental groups went to federal court in Oakland, Calif., charging the Bush administration with giving too much water to irrigation interests at the risk of thousands of salmon.

"Basically, the administration created a drought in the lower river," said Zeke Grader, with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen, the largest trade group of salmon fishers on the West Coast.

Bush administration officials said they had acted on information from scientists and were baffled by the deaths. Allocating more water to irrigators, who staged a series of high-profile protests last summer when they were denied their usual amount of water for farming, may not have been a factor in the die-off, the officials said.

"It's an anomaly," said Mark Limbaugh, director of external affairs at the Bureau of Reclamation, which controls water in the Upper Klamath basin. "No one has ever seen a problem like this, and it may very well turn out to be a natural phenomenon."

The Indians say that the warm weather has not affected any other river except the Klamath, and that the fish die-off can be directly tied to the withholding of river water.

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