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Klamath Riverkeeper Leads Groups To Clean Watershed
By Dan Bacher
November 6, 2006

Klamath Riverkeeper

Regina Chichizola, executive director of the Klamath Riverkeeper, and members of a coalition of Indian Tribes, commercial fishing groups, and recreational fishermen converged in Sacramento on October 25 to urge the State Water Resources Board to clean up the Klamath.

The Klamath Riverkeeper, based in Orleans, is the newest member of the national Water Keeper Alliance that includes the San Francisco Baykeeper and the Deltakeeper. The organization was started by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to connect and support local Waterkeeper programs and provide a voice for waterways and their communities worldwide.

After a rally outside of the board's headquarters, Chichizola joined Klamath River residents and coastal fishermen in demanding that the board set a water quality standard for the algal toxin microcystin, list toxic algae as a pollutant on the Klamath and regulate toxic discharge from PacifiCorp's Dams.

Scientists from the Karuk Indian Tribe in the summer of 2005 were surprised to discover huge blooms of Microcystic aeruginosa, a toxic blue green algae. The algae produce the toxic microcystin present in the reservoirs at dangerously high concentrations.

“This year, in our second year of measuring algae, the Iron Gate and Copco reservoirs had the highest levels of the algal toxic microcystin ever measured in the United States,” contended Craig Tucker of the Karuk Tribe. “They exceeded the World Health Organizations guidelines for a moderate risk of exposure by 4,000 fold.”

WHO guidelines state that the presence of “visible scums” on the water's surface constitute a “high risk.” Thick scums of algae are present in PacifCorp reservoirs from June through October. Neither the U.S. or state governments have set their own standards.

“We're dealing with a potent liver toxin and known tumor promoter,” said Chichizola. “We have known about this problem for over a year and there's still not a plan to protect the public from this toxin.”

The Klamath Media Collective presented a short film to the board documenting the algae-ridden water in the lake as Susan Corum took samples of the water.

Besides being a risk to human health, the algae and the poor water conditions that cause it present a great danger to the Klamath's imperiled salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon and lamprey fisheries.

“Salmon fishing off the California and Oregon coast is managed on the basis of the Klamath stocks,” said Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations. “Not only is the toxic algae bad for human health, but it's bad for the salmon that our members fish for. This algae is creating the conditions for the worm that hosts the C. Shasta parasite that has been responsible for die offs of juvenile salmon every year since 2002.”

He said the C. Shasta thrives in the river because of a combination of high water temperatures and the algae, after it breaks up, provides the sediment that hosts the worm and C. Shasta.

“It is extremely important for the board to establish standards just simply for human health, but for the sake of the coastal economy that depends on healthy populations of salmon,” he concluded.

This year commercial fishermen encountered the most severe fishing restrictions in history, in spite of the Pacific Fishery Management Council's predictions of a large abundance of Sacramento River chinooks. It was only through the unity of tribal, commercial and recreational fishermen that any recreational or commercial season was allowed at all, since the Bush administration wanted to completely close the salmon season.

Dick Pool, representing Pro Troll and the American Sportfishing Association, declared his support for the effort to clean the Klamath of toxins. “ASA remains deeply concerned about all aspects of restoring the Klamath River, including solving the serious pollution problems,” he stated. “We, together with the tribes and commercial fishermen, look forward to solving these problems, including removing the Klamath dams.”

David Arwood, a Karuk Tribal Member from Happy Camp, who spoke briefly in the Karuk language and performed a song outside of the board offices before the meeting, emphasized the central importance of the Klamath River in the culture of the Klamath Basin Indian Tribes.

“The Klamath River tribes are all river people,” said Arwood. “All that we do revolves around the river. The Creator gave the river as a resource to be our home. But with the pollution and decline of the fisheries, I wonder if we will be able to live here any more. What is the world coming to?”

Dana Golgrove, a Yurok and Hoopa Tribe member, said, “I'm real concerned about what's going on in the river. The whole U.S. is freaking out about toxic bacteria on lettuce. But I don't see the people showing the same concern about our river. We need help to clean up the river for the sake of both our children and our elders.”

Chichizola presented the board with the letter signed by 35 different organizations, along with State Senators Wes Chesbro and Patty Berg.

“PacifiCorp should be listed as a polluter by the board,” said Chichizola, “since the impoundments that it owns create the algae that pollute the river. Something needs to be done to deal with this pollution soon.”

She said that the current demand by the Tribes, fishermen and conservationists to remove the Klamath dams offer the best solution. “This toxic algae needs warm, stagnant, nutrient-rich water to grow. They find the optimal habitat in the reservoirs. The best solution is to breach the dams,” she said.

“Even the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission notes that dam removal would lead to improved water quality,” she stated, referring to FERC's recently released draft EIS regarding the relicensing of the Klamath dams.

As the board engages in the process of adopting standards, Chichizola urged them to adopt interim pollution standards based on the World Health Organization's standards.

One supporter of the dams from Siskiyou County, Charlene Walden, offered another proposal for dealing with the blue green algae problem.

“We believe that the algae needs to be removed from the reservoirs before it blooms in July and August,” she said. “This is a much less drastic step than removing the dams. We want to save the dams, our lakes and our way of life in Siskiyou County.”

She also challenged the Riverkeeper's and tribe's claims that the toxic algae was as dangerous as presented. “We asked Siskiyou County for health information about the blue green algae blooms in July and August and there has never been a death or fish kill resulting from the algae,” he concluded.

However, Tucker countered, “Do we have to wait until a kid gets a mouthful of water in a backwater eddy of the lake and gets sick before we do anything about this pollution?”

After the public comments, Art Baggett, chairman of the board, said that Mike Chrisman, Resources Secretary and Ryan Broderick, DFG director had been meeting with 28 parties over the past two years to resolve water quality and temperature problems on the Klamath.

“Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is committed to Klamath River restoration," said Baggett. “He and the Oregon Governor have sent out a letter to people in both states calling for a 3 day Klamath river summit to come up with not just solutions in the FERC relicensing process, but the other issues on the Klamath.”

Baggett emphasized that the state would do its best to bring about “an expedited resolution ASAP” of the Klamath River's many problems, including the toxic algae.

Although the sediment resulting from the breakup of the algae is known to harbor the worm that hosts the salmon parasite C. Shasta, there have been minimal studies in the reservoirs and the river to determine whether or not toxins are present in the fish.

I have eaten yellow perch out of the reservoir a couple of times and it was absolutely delicious - and I suffered no ill effects. However, I ate the perch in October well after the blue green algae had dispersed after the water had cooled down.

The toxic algae is present in the Klamath River below Iron Gate Dam, but in lower concentrations than the reservoirs because the river does not provide the preferred conditions as reservoirs do.

“It is not known if the toxin produced by the algae in the reservoirs is washing down river at dangerous levels,” according to a pamphlet about the toxic algae produced by the Klamath Restoration Council, www.klamathrestoration.org.

“The presence of the mycrocysin and other algae in the Klamath watershed is not only a general health threat, but a tribal trust and environmental justice issue,” said Chichizola. “Tribal members are exposed more than most of the citizens of the Klamath due to fishing and ceremonial practices. However, unlike other citizens of the Klamath, the tribes cannot simply choose to avoid the river without giving up their main food source and practicing their religious ceremonies.”

The Klamath Riverkeeper organization made its debut in a powerful manner, with excellent presentations by Regina, members of the Karuk, Hoopa and Yurok tribes, fishermen and environmental activists at the recent water board meeting. I look forward to seeing increasing involvement of the Riverkeeper in restoring the Klamath in coming years.

Besides the toxic algae, other issues the Klamath Riverkeeper intends to work on include protecting the remaining Klamath salmon, making sure that the Clean Water Act is enforced on Klamath tributaries, creating a citizens pollution monitoring group, empowering local rural communities to protect their watersheds and joining Klamath Basin Tribes and coastal fishermen's call for dam removal.

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