The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved California’s water quality improvement plan for restoring salmon fisheries and water quality in the Klamath River.
The plan calls for substantial pollution reductions for the California portion of the river, including a 57 percent reduction in phosphorus, 32 percent in nitrogen, and 16 percent in carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand.
The plan also calls for annual reductions in the river's reservoirs of more than 120,000 pounds of nitrogen, and 22,000 pounds of phosphorus.
The Klamath River, a federally protected "Wild and Scenic River," flows 255 miles southwest from Oregon through northern California, and empties into the Pacific Ocean. The Klamath River drains an extensive watershed covering over 12,600 square miles, and has been called the "Everglades of the West.”
The Klamath River and its tributaries, says the EPA, support the highest diversity of anadromous fishes of any river in California, including salmon, cutthroat trout, steelhead and sturgeon.
Upstream in Oregon, the river hosts the state's most robust population of redband and bull trout. In 2002, a massive die-off of more than 33,000 salmon brought national attention to this area.
The tribes that live along the Klamath rely on the river for subsistence, transportation and ceremony, as they have for thousands of years. These tribes include the Yurok, Hoopa Valley, Karuk, Quartz Valley and Resighini Rancheria on the lower stretches of the river (California), and the Modoc and Klamath in the upper basin (Oregon.)
Under the Clean Water Act, states and authorized tribes are required to develop a list of waters that do not meet water quality standards. For these “impaired” waters, jurisdictions must calculate the maximum amount of pollutants allowed to enter them so they can meet water quality standards into the future. These pollution limits are called Total Maximum Daily Loads or TMDLs.
Today, the entire Klamath River is listed as “impaired.”
In 1992, the California State Water Quality Control Board proposed that the Klamath River be listed for temperature, organic enrichment/low dissolved oxygen, and nutrients, requiring the development of TMDL limits and implementation plans. The Water Board subsequently added sediment and microcystin (an algal toxin) to this list for parts of the Klamath.
The Klamath River’s aquatic habitat degradation is due to organic enrichment/low dissolved oxygen, excessively warm water temperatures and algae blooms associated with high nutrient loads, water impoundments, and agricultural diversions. Algal blooms can release toxins, posing moderate to significant health risks. Harmful results range from skin rashes and fevers, to livestock poisoning and liver toxicity. Since 2004, levels of cyanobacteria and microcystin toxins at several locations on the lower Klamath have exceeded World Health Organization standards.
TMDLs for several water bodies in the Klamath Basin - the Trinity River, Scott River, Shasta River, Lost River, and the Klamath Straits Drain - are also being implemented to address impairments due to excessive pollution. Reductions vary for each reach of the Klamath River, with the most significant reductions required from Stateline through the Klamath Hydroelectric Project reservoirs.
“This historic Klamath River plan charts the path to restoring one of our nation’s largest, most scenic and biologically important watersheds,” said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “By establishing clear benchmarks and accountability this plan will ensure that Klamath River can thrive long into the future.”
This plan reflects a multi-year collaborative effort to develop pollutant limits for the full Klamath River. A partnership between EPA, California’s North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality began in 2003. California’s plan received extensive public review and was approved by both the Regional Board and the State Water Board prior to EPA’s approval. The companion plan for the upper reaches of Klamath River in Oregon was released by Oregon DEQ on December 21, 2010; EPA’s Pacific Northwest region is expected to act on Oregon’s plan in January 2011.
"The Klamath particularly is a troubled river system, and once supported the third largest salmon runs in the nation. Implementation of these Klamath Mainstem TMDLs will go a long way toward helping restore those key salmon runs, and the jobs those salmon once supported," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
“It is truly good news that the current round of water quality planning for the Klamath River is complete,” said Catherine Kuhlman, executive officer of the North Coast Regional Board. “Now, it’s time for action to reduce water pollution and restore the river in order to enhance the myriad of beneficial uses of the river.”
The state’s plan identifies actions to improve water quality to restore salmon and other fisheries in the river, protect Native American cultural uses and enhance general recreational uses of the Klamath River. Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, the Regional Board, EPA and many other partners are developing a watershed-wide tracking program to increase the pace and reduce the cost of improving Klamath Basin water quality to support all water-related uses in the basin. The plan also addresses water quality impacts of the Klamath Hydroelectric Project, establishes a policy to protect thermal refuges (cooler areas in the river that provide critical habitat for fish during high temperatures), and addresses nonpoint sources of pollution such as roads and agriculture.
This action is the culmination of 13 years of state and federal efforts to develop TMDLs for 17 North Coast water bodies. The Klamath River in California is the last of those water bodies in the North Coast covered by a 1997 legal settlement under which EPA and/or the state was to develop TMDLs.