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Debris Flows and Turbidity Inundate the Klamath River.

North Fork of the Salmon River on July 6, 2015 following severe thunderstorms. The turbidity and sedimentation from this event turned 230 miles of the Klamath River brown and turbid, from Beaver Creek to the mouth of the River near Klamath Glen. (Photo: Scott Harding)
           The fires on the Klamath River in 2014 burned on a vast
scale across over 200,000 acres in the Klamath, Scott, and Salmon River
watersheds. The fires burned in a mixed severity fire mosaic, including many acres of low severity understory fire and some
large high severity burn patches. Most of these high severity patches burned
during extreme weather conditions, including high winds and temperatures. At
other times fires burned intensely when inversion layers lifted and created
unstable atmospheric conditions. These high severity burn patches include areas
of nearly complete tree mortality, where soils were, at times, scorched, causing them to become
hydrophobic. Hydrophobic soils absorb water very poorly and tend to produce
large volumes of runoff. 
            On July 5,
2015 the Klamath River area received intense thunderstorms, including heavy downpours, some of which were reported to have produced over 1.5” of rain in less
than a half hour. On numerous afternoons the rain came down on these fragile
post-fire landscapes, producing extreme sedimentation in fire-effected
watersheds and turning the Klamath River itself turbid, dark and silty-brown, from
Beaver Creek to the mouth of the Klamath River. This turbidity has impacted 230
miles of the Klamath River watershed. Tributary streams affected by
sedimentation include Beaver Creek, Walker Creek, Grider Creek, and Elk Creek. 

           Tributaries affected by the Whites Fire of 2014—including South Russian Creek, Music Creek, and Whites Gulch—also filled the Salmon River with
sediment from the upper North Fork to the mouth near Somes Bar, California. It is feared that the impacts to the spring-run Chinook salmon currently in the Salmon River will be severe. The sedimentation and debris flows pouring into
some of these streams filled in a large number of pools that are very
important as refugia for endangered salmon and steelhead species. Numerous
of these streams are important habitat for anadromous fish because they pour cold, high
quality water into the Klamath River, and many of these streams themselves also provide cold
water habitat, deep pools and important spawning gravels. These gravels and pools have
been filled in with fine sediment, reducing available habitat to our local salmon species. The impact has been severe, and unfortunately, could only get worse if
the Klamath National Forest proceeds with the enormous post-fire logging
project known as the Westside Fire Recovery Project. 

Before and after photos on the North Fork of the Salmon River (Photos: Scott Harding)

            Many of the
watersheds affected by this turbidity event have one thing in common: unstable and highly
erosive granitic soils. I believe this is one of the most important factors
contributing to the turbidity and sedimentation. The events we have watched
unfold were the perfect storm. A combination of high severity burn patches,
highly erosive granitic soils, steep topography, sudden torrential downpours,
and the historic impact of industrialization in our forests, including fire suppression,
road building and logging. All things are connected, and likely many things
contributed to the watershed impacts we are seeing, most notably high severity fire, erosive granitic soils, and unusually severe rain events.
            Unfortunately,
these same fragile, granitic watersheds have been targeted for large-scale
industrial logging in the Westside Fire Recovery Project. Many areas that
recently experienced severe erosion, and watersheds that were seriously impacted
by turbidity and sedimentation, are also proposed for clear-cut, post-fire logging, large
scale road reconstruction, and other impacts associated with heavy industrial
logging. Walker Creek and Grider Creek are proposed for the largest
concentration of salvage logging units in the Westside Project. 

Grider Creek on July 9, 2015. Notice the heavy sedimentation piling up along the banks of the stream. Deep pools and spawning gravels have been filled with decomposed granite that washed down during the heavy rain events on July 5, 2015. Grider Creek is being targeted for large-scale, post-fire logging on very steep, erosive slopes. (Photo: Mark Moytka)
            One thing
is for certain: to implement one of the region’s largest industrial-logging
projects in recent history in the wake of this turbidity event and in the wake of these
large fires is irresponsible. The Westside Project should be canceled and real
watershed recovery projects proposed that would sustain our natural legacy into
the future. The Klamath River salmon are simply too important to lose. 

        This summer turbidity event should be seen as a game-changer for the Westside Project; the situation has taken a drastic turn and a new analysis should be done to take this turbidity event into account. 
            Please
contact the Klamath National Forest and tell them that the environmental
baseline from which they did their analysis has changed, new information and
new environmental conditions exist that should make the current Environmental
Impact Statement for the Westside Fire Recovery Project null and void. Likewise, given what we have seen already,
the potential for water quality and fisheries impacts associated with the
Westside Project are too high. The project must be canceled!
Walker Creek has been filled with sediment, cobbles, and woody debris from debris flows. The area is also being targeted with the largest concentration of post-fire logging units in the Westside Project. The logging proposed is likely to increase sedimentation and erosion in the watershed, impacting riparian values and salmon fisheries in Walker Creek and downstream in the Klamath River. Post-fire logging in these sensitive watersheds is irresponsible and should be canceled. (Photo: Mark Mytoka)
            Contact the North Coast Water Control Board and ask them not to
approve a water quality waiver for the Westside Fire Recovery Project. The
stakes are simply too high.
            Contact the
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS or NOAA Fisheries) and let them know that the fisheries of
the Klamath River are too precious to lose and that the Westside Project will put the
future of the Klamath River salmon in jeopardy.

Listen to an excellent radio interview about the issue with Scott Harding of the Salmon River Restoration Council.
https://soundcloud.com/kmudnews/salmon-river-tragedy-2015 

Stop the Westside Fire Recovery Project!
Contacts for the appropriate
officials are posted below.   

  • NMFS: Jim.Simondet@noaa.gov 
            Donald.Flickinger@noaa.gov
  • North West Water Control Board: Matt.St.John@waterboards.ca.gov
  • Klamath National Forest Supervisor: pagrantham@fs.fed.us

Comment

  • Very good post. It is now becoming clear that plugged culverts resulting in road blow-outs played a significant role in the nuisance sediment event. Firefighters reopened many previously decommissioned roads during the fires. Hopefully there will be investigations by the FS and Water Board designed to understand the sources of the sediment. One thing is clear, KNF managers were remiss and possibly negligent.in not having storm crews patrolling roads at risk during storm events. Keeping culverts clear along at-risk roads post-fire used to be standard operating procedure on ranger districts but apparently that is no longer the case.

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