Think Out Loud

Salmon numbers in Klamath River fare better for Yurok Tribe after catastrophic losses last year

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
June 3, 2022 6:24 p.m. Updated: June 3, 2022 8:37 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, June 3

The Yurok Tribe faced a catastrophic fish kill last year. While salmon are doing better, concerns remain.

The Yurok Tribe faced a catastrophic fish kill last year. While salmon are doing better, concerns remain.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


Last year, the Yurok Tribe in Northern California faced a catastrophic fish kill. Dead fish were found throughout the Klamath River. This year, the tribe says salmon are faring much better, but concerns remain. We check in with Barry McCovey, Fisheries Department director for the Yurok Tribe, to hear how the fish are doing.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. As you might remember, we spent a week in the Klamath Basin last year. We started in Klamath Falls in the upper basin and eventually followed the river all the way down to California. We went because it was the second year in a row of a historically bad drought. Irrigators got no water from the Klamath project, leading some ultra-conservative groups to threaten to turn the spigots on themselves. Native American tribes were terrified that populations of endangered or threatened fish might finally just collapse, and birds once again were last in the pecking order for non-existent water. There have been a few changes since last year. Irrigators will receive some water and hundreds of millions of federal dollars from the federal infrastructure bill are going to flow into the basin for restoration work. But the overall picture remains largely the same. There’s not nearly enough water to go around for native tribes, ranchers, farmers and migrating birds. So we thought this was a good time to check back in with a variety of voices from the basin – a chance to hear what year three of an ongoing drought actually means. We start with Barry McCovey, the Fisheries Director for the Yurok Tribe. The Yurok Reservation straddles 44 miles of the Lower Klamath River, all the way to its mouth at the Pacific. Barry McCovey, welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Barry McCovey: Hey, thanks for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us once again. I want to start with last spring, which was truly dismal in terms of salmon on the Klamath River. Can you remind us what happened?

McCovey: Yeah. Last year we were in a catastrophic drought. We’re still in that catastrophic drought, but last year it hit really hard on the juvenile salmonids, Chinook salmon in particular, that were leaving the river and heading out to sea as part of their life cycle. The river was low and warm, and that led to disease outbreaks. We were seeing mass die offs, and we probably lost 70% of the juvenile year-class that was heading out to sea last year. It was a catastrophic fish kill, and it was really hard for the tribe to handle.

Miller: A fish kill that will have ripple effects in the years to come because the fish that died won’t come back in three years. What has this year been like?

McCovey: We started off this winter in year three of this catastrophic drought, and it looked as though it was going to be worse than last year. We didn’t have any rain or snow all of January and February and most of March. Then this spring, in April and May, we had a lot of rain and snow, more than average for those months. While it didn’t make up for the lack of precipitation during the winter, it helped out with the fish out-migration and it’s been keeping disease levels low. The fish that are out-migrating this year are doing much better than the fish that left the river last year. But there’s a lot of issues that still remain. So..

Miller: I’m wondering though… Given the short attention spans that are a part of so many of our lives right now, society wide, is it harder to get people to pay attention if there isn’t an immediate and very visible catastrophe? I mean, if there isn’t a massive die off at this exact moment?

McCovey: Definitely. We were having media requests every day of the week and this year they’re few and far between. And headlines, a mass fish die off creates headlines. So we’re not seeing a lot of attention, but we’re still in a catastrophic drought. Salmon populations continue to crash when we look at the return of adult salmon to the Klamath River. Those are the fish that the tribes and sport fishermen and commercial fishermen – those are the fish that are harvested, and their numbers continue to be low. All projections are saying that their numbers will continue to be low into the future, especially based on what we saw last year with the out-migration taking such a hard hit. So we’re still in a really bad spot. Last year was so catastrophic that it makes this year look good, but this year by no stretch of the imagination is good. This year is also terrible.


Miller: One of the most profound changes to the basin in decades – that has been in the works for a while – is the removal of four dams, the largest dam removal in US history. Where does that stand right now?

McCovey: This is something that tribes and our allies and partners throughout the basin have been working on for decades, and we’re right at the doorstep. We are just a year or two away from actually removing those dams and creating a free flowing river once again. It’s been a long time in the making and here we are. We’re getting very close.

Miller: I know there’ve been some bureaucratic delays, but what’s the best case scenario for when the dams will actually be fully breached?

McCovey: There’s some environmental compliance that needs to be completed, and it takes a while. Right now, we’re waiting on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, to issue a final environmental impact statement. We’re expecting that in September. There are some other compliance documents that need to be completed before FERC can give the okay for the project to move ahead. We think that that will be done by the end of this year, by December, so in 2023 we can start some construction work. We can start on some ancillary pre-dam-removal type construction activities, things that need to be done before we can actually start taking the dams down. We anticipate drawing down reservoirs and removing the dams in the winter of 2024 – beginning work in the winter of 2024.

Miller: Speaking of federal bureaucracy and decision making, I want to turn to the infrastructure bill and the infusion of federal money for, among other things, habitat restoration in the basin. How much money is on the way?

McCovey: Klamath-specific funding was allocated through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. It was in the neighborhood of $162 million over five years, so that’s about $32 million dollars a year available for restoration activities. That’s a lot of money being pumped into the system. In addition to that Klamath-specific funding, there are many other funding opportunities out there right now in the federal government through this bill funding. So there’s a lot of opportunity during this time period.

Miller: What are you hoping for from the different piles of available money?

McCovey: I’m hoping that we can use these funds to build off of dam removal and make sure that the dam-removal project is done to the best capacity that it can be done so that we have a really good understanding of what dam removal is doing for the basin, and we can do restoration and monitoring and research projects related to dam removal so that we get the most out of that. In addition to that, we’re hoping to do a lot of small-scale and large-scale restoration projects in addition to research and monitoring. But throughout the basin, we need to do all we can while there’s a good funding climate. It’s not always like this. So whatever we can do, we’re gonna try to do.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for how transformative, or not, this amount of money is? One hundred sixty-two million dollars, plus other pots of money, sounds like a lot. But is it a lot in terms of the scale of the work that you’d like to see done?

McCovey: It helps. I recently saw a number thrown out there that it would probably take around $5 billion to do all the restoration work that needs to be done in the Klamath. It’s really hard to say how much money it would take to fully restore the Klamath. We don’t know that. But this is definitely gonna help. It’s going to get us going in the right direction. Of course, we can do all the habitat restoration work in the world, but if there isn’t enough water, that habitat restoration isn’t that helpful for fish, wildlife and ecosystem function. We need enough water for all of those things to function correctly, how they’ve evolved to function, so that the basin is balanced like it should be. This is very helpful. This is very positive. It’s gonna get us further down the road than we’ve ever been, but we’re still gonna have a lot of work to do.

Miller: Barry, thanks very much.

McCovey: Thank you.

Miller: That’s Barry McCovey, Fisheries Department director for the Yurok Tribe.

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