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ENVIRONMENT REPORT - October 25, 2002: Chinook Salmon Deaths - 2002-10-24

This is the VOA Special English ENVIRONMENT REPORT.

American officials say at least twenty-thousand chinook salmon and other fish have died recently in the Klamath River in Northern California. Scientists are not sure what caused the die-off. But environmental groups say the Bush administration’s plan to redirect the flow of the river to provide water for crops may have caused water levels to drop too low.

The Klamath River starts at Upper Klamath Lake in southern Oregon and flows into Northern California. Then river flows west into the Pacific Ocean. Water management of the Klamath River has been a major dispute between farmers on one side and fishermen, environmental groups and several Native American tribes on the other side.

Six months ago, the Bush administration approved a plan to provide large amounts of water to farmers near the Klamath River for irrigation. Farmers depend on water from the upper Klamath Lake to irrigate more than eighty-thousand hectares of land. Administration officials said the plan would satisfy farmers and honor environmental laws. But opponents of the plan said it would severely harm the river and its fish.

Several fishing groups and others have taken legal action against the federal government. They said the Bush administration gave too much water to farmers for irrigation at the risk of thousands of salmon. Some of the salmon, such as coho, are protected under the Endangered Species Act. However, chinook salmon do not have federal protection. Chinook were the main victims of the recent fish kill.

Scientists disagree about what caused to the fish to die. Tests showed that most of the fish died of lack of oxygen due to infections that damaged their gills. Scientists say the organisms that caused the infection are common in the river. But rarely have the organisms led to so many deaths.

Some scientists say warm and dry weather last month and low water flows in the Klamath River could be major reasons for the deaths. They say the river is too low for fish to move upstream to mate. They say the fish are dying of disease because they are crowded into small areas of water.

Biologists have called for more water to be released into the river for at least six months. But so far, federal officials have agreed only to two weeks of additional water flows.

This VOA Special English ENVIRONMENT REPORT was written by Cynthia Kirk.