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The Big Kill, Part Two

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Remember what happened on the Klamath River in 2002? You can be forgiven if you've repressed the memory: it was painful in the extreme, particularly if you like to catch or eat salmon.

In late summer of that year, tens of thousands of returning salmon died in the lower Klamath due to low flows and excessively warm water. It didn't have to happen; the fish could have been saved. The Klamath's largest tributary, the Trinity River, is dammed in its upper reaches. Trinity Reservoir is a cold water pool for the entire Klamath system; timely releases would have saved one of the biggest salmon runs in recent decades.

But instead, contractors with the Central Valley Project (CVP) sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Trinity has been plumbed to send water down the Sacramento River -- and ultimately, to corporate mega-farms in the western San Joaquin Valley. Never mind that these industrial "farmers" have junior water contracts. They have clout where it counts: with legislators in Washington, DC and Sacramento, and in the courts.

End result: Fresno Federal District Court Judge Oliver Wanger issued an injunction against releases from Trinity Reservoir, and the fish were denied the cold water flows they needed for survival. About 65,000 mature salmon died, and the consequences were felt long afterward.

The tribal communities that live along the Klamath and Trinity and have subsisted on the salmon for thousands of years were deprived of a staple food source. North state sport anglers -- and the retailers who depend on the fishermen for their livelihoods -- were left twisting in the wind.

And now, we're about to live through the nightmare again.

The winter of 2012 and 2013 was almost identical to that of 2001 and 2002. Precipitation was generally light, and snowmelt was scant. Run-off into our rivers and reservoirs was minimal. And as it was in early summer of 2002, so it is today. The rivers are low, most notably the Klamath. And the salmon run this year is enormous. Several hundred thousand big, four-year-old Chinook salmon are expected to return to the Klamath system in late summer. Significant numbers of steelhead and endangered Coho salmon will also return.

CVP contractors are well aware of this bonanza run, and they're also determined to do something about it: kill it. Never mind their assurances to the contrary. Already, their actions speak far louder than their blandishments. In letters to David Murillo, the Mid-Pacific Regional Director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and copied to a federal advisory committee, the Trinity Adaptive Management Group , CVP contractors expressly stated their opposition to augmented flows from Trinity Reservoir to save Klamath fish.

Couched in the convoluted legalese of these missives is a blunt message -- give us the water, and the hell with the fish. Nothing new there: the agribiz barons of the western San Joaquin have always copped a thug's attitude when it comes to California's water, demanding and expecting it all.

To justify their hoggish ways, the San Joaquin's corporate farmers portray themselves as selfless sons and daughters of the soil, struggling to produce food for a hungry nation despite harassment from enviro-weenies, small-minded fishermen and heartless bureaucrats.

That's laughable. These jokers are hardly philanthropists: they're plutocrats. They're making money hand over fist, largely because their water is delivered via the CVP at scandalously low rates, sometimes to irrigate price-supported crops. All thanks to subsidies from Uncle Sam -- I mean, you and me.

So how is it going to play out? Historically, the Bureau of Reclamation has caved to the demands of their biggest contractors. That's what happened in 2002, and anyone who gives a damn about the Klamath and its fisheries is waiting to see if it will happen again.

There are some rumors circulating that Reclamation might stand firm this time, and give the salmon the water they need. If the agency does do the right thing, it won't be because it has suddenly grown a backbone: rather, the anticipated blowback from a furious public is more intimidating than a few hundred irate agribusiness bigwigs and their fat cat lawyers.

Let's hope the grapevine has it right. And at this juncture, some citizen pressure on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and our political representatives wouldn't be amiss. They need to be reminded that the corporate farmers of the western San Joaquin aren't their only constituents.

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