By Michelle Werts

It’s farmer vs. fisherman in California.

The battleground is the Klamath River and at stake are the abundant agricultural fields of California’s Central Valley and the lives of thousands upon thousands of endangered Chinook salmon. No pressure.

This area of California is home to the nationally designated Wild and Scenic River the Klamath. Flowing 286 miles from Oregon to California, it’s the second longest river in California, making it a major player in watershed and ecosystem health, but it’s perhaps most famous for its seasonal salmon runs. Every fall, adult Chinook salmon leave the salt water of the Pacific Ocean and enter the freshwater of the Klamath — as well as California’s longest river, the Sacramento — to reach their native spawning grounds, where they end their lives as they give birth to new life.

It’s an arduous journey that requires optimal conditions for success. Two of these conditions are temperature and river height. The Klamath needs to be high enough for the salmon to make their run, but also cold enough to protect both the fish and their eggs from baking to death. With this year’s drought, experts fear that neither of these conditions will be met. And the timing couldn’t be worse, as experts also predict an above-average run size of 272,000 adult Chinook salmon.

Chinook salmon in the Salmon River, a tributary of the Klamath River
Chinook salmon in the Salmon River, a tributary of the Klamath River. Credit: Enrique Patino/NOAA Fisheries Northwest

The solution being proposed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees water supplies through government dams, powerplants and canals, is to release up to 62,000 acre-feet — 2.7 billion cubic feet — of cool water from the Trinity Reservoir to supplement Lower Klamath River flows. But, there’s a potential problem. The Trinity also feeds the Clear Creek Tunnel, which, through a number of mechanisms and other locations, eventually feeds the Sacramento River, providing irrigation for the Central Valley’s farmers.

In its required Draft Finding of No Significant Impact of its plan to release water in the Lower Klamath River, the Bureau of Reclamation states, “The expected schedule for water delivery to the Clear Creek Tunnel has already been developed, and the Proposed Action would not affect these exports.” Nevertheless, with a seemingly never-ending drought on their minds, California’s agricultural community is nervous about the proposed plan, and according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority has given a 60-day notice of intent to sue if water for Central Valley farmers is used to protect the fish in the Klamath.

What will happen if no action is taken and if the water is too low and too hot? We could see a repeat of 2002 when up to 65,000 of the endangered salmon died from the effects of too little, too warm water.

At American Forests, we know that river conditions in northern California are extremely important to the well-being of communities — human and wildlife alike — which is why in the last decade, our Global ReLeaf program has supported multiple projects in the Klamath basin. In 2012, our most recent project in this area planted 477,200 trees in Klamath National Forest to restore riparian areas affected by the Elk Complex Fire.

Needless to say, we’re very curious to see how this Klamath dilemma plays out.

The Klamath River
The Klamath River. Credit: Jimmy Emerson