Yurok Scientific Knowledge Sways Court Decision to Increase Klamath River Flows

Nanette Bradley Deetz, Native News Network

FRESNO, CALIFORNIA – On August 22, the Yurok Tribe received some excellent news. A federal court judge acknowledged the biological importance of supplemental water flows for Klamath River salmon. This was a far-reaching legal case between the Bureau of Reclamation, the Yurok tribe, as well as other tribes in the region against central California industrial agriculture.

Yurok Tribe

Yurok tribal members Pete Thompson and Bob Ray cast a drift net into the Klamath River on the Yurok Reservation.


The Yurok Tribe of Klamath, California is the largest federally recognized tribe in California and is the single largest harvester of Klamath River salmon.

The Yurok reservation spans one mile on both sides of the Klamath River for 44 miles. The tribe requested 2,800 cubic feet per second of water flow to be released. This is the same rate of water flow per second that the Yurok fisheries experts defended in their scientific case in a Fresno, California courtroom. Originally the Bureau of Reclamation (at the Yurok tribe’s request) made additional water available in order to avert another fish kill. In 2002 a large fish kill occurred on the Yurok reservation in river conditions eerily similar to this year’s.

Yurok Tribe

Above, Salmon is cooked in a traditional Yurok way. At least 272,000 Fall-run salmon are expected to return to the river.


“In 2002 more than 33,000 Chinook and Coho salmon died before reaching spawning grounds. It was heartbreaking to see the fish floating upside down on the river by the thousands. We learned from that tragedy. This year, when the water temperature was so high, and we knew we were expecting the 2nd or 3rd highest volume of returning salmon predicted in decades, we asked the Department of the Interior to increase water flow. But then the injunction was filed by agribusiness to stop it,”

said Yurok tribal Chairman Thomas O’Rourke, Sr.

In early August, Westlands Water District and San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority, which represent a large portion of California’s multibillion dollar agricultural industry, filed suit to stop the water flow from being released.

The Yurok tribe presented key science testimony to the court by two witnesses, Senior Fisheries Biologist Michael Belchik and Dr. Joshua Strange.

“Yurok science of the Klamath River basin is renowned not only in this nation, but abroad. This a western science that allows us to substantiate our claims,”

said Chairman O’Rourke, Sr.

At least 272,000 Fall-run salmon are expected to return to the river this year, almost 1.7 times the number that returned in 2002.

There is also a contingency plan in place. At the first sign that the salmon look diseased or distressed, the tribe will seek to have flows doubled for up to seven days. They will not allow the combination of low, warm river water and inadequate water flows to jeopardize the salmon.

“There is knowledge passed down from our ancestors to take care of our resources so that they will take care of us. We must ensure its continuance for future generations to come. The river is our lifeline,”

said Yurok Chairman Thomas O’Rourke Sr.