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As another sucker spawning season comes and goes, lake levels stay low

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A small population of C'waam spawn along the eastern shoreline springs of Upper Klamath Lake each spring. Hundreds of thousands of suckers used to spawn throughout Upper Klamath Lake prior to colonization, but only about 5,000 fish remain today. Staff photo by Alex Schwartz

Many years ago, the Klamath people were having a difficult time surviving. They couldn’t find many plants or berries to gather; birds, deer and elk would escape their arrows; and they weren’t catching enough salmon and trout. And to top it all off, a giant horned snake was wreaking havoc in the area, killing and devouring people.

The Klamaths prayed to Gmukamps, the Creator, for help. He appeared at the top of niiLaks (Modoc Rim) and saw their plight. Brandishing a knife, he charged down the ridge and wrestled the snake. Gmukamps eventually defeated the monster, cut it up into thousands of pieces and flung those pieces into Upper Klamath Lake. As soon as they hit the water, they transformed into fish: C’waam and Koptu.

That spot below the ridge, near Barkley and Sucker Springs, served as a trading and gathering place for many tribes in the area prior to colonization. There they would share the creation story of the fish that saved their people and became inextricably linked with their survival. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the legend, Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry believes it’s this: “If the fish die, the people die.”

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Sucker Spring, on the eastern shore of Upper Klamath Lake adjacent to Highway 97. In a normal water year, a foot or more of water would cover this gravel, allowing C'waam to access the cool, clean spring water to lay and fertilize their eggs. Staff photo by Alex Schwartz

Thousands of years later, settlement and alterations to the land have made the Klamath Basin nearly unrecognizable to the Klamath Tribes’ ancestors — and to the C’waam and Koptu themselves. Having lost the majority of the habitat they evolved in, the fish are dying. And few can agree on how to bring them back.

On a warm day in mid-April this year, Upper Klamath Lake hovered at more than a foot below the level required in the most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion. Record-low flows in the lake’s tributaries suggested this would likely be the highest the water gets this year. By the end of May, the elevation was 4,140.3 feet.

Alex Gonyaw, senior fisheries biologist for the Klamath Tribes, stood on the railroad bank overlooking Sucker Spring. Cars and trucks rumbled past on Highway 97, with niiLaks towering behind. Water percolating from snowfall on the top of the ridge flowed out of the rocks along the lakeshore below — water so clear that you could see where the spring stopped and the cloudier lake began.

A small group of suckers idled offshore, unable to reach gravel covered in only a few inches of spring water. That gravel, Gonyaw said, is where they would typically lay their eggs.

“Historically, they would’ve had dozens if not hundreds of locations where they would spawn,” he said, adding that the construction of the railroad along the lakeshore and the draining of nearby wetlands have left the lake-spawning fish with very few options when it’s time to reproduce.

When Gonyaw first started working for the Tribes five years ago, there were about 20,000 suckers (mostly C’waam) spawning in Upper Klamath Lake’s shoreline springs. Now, the estimate is around 5,000.

“This is the remnants of what was once a massive population of fish,” Gonyaw said. “They are rapidly going away.”

C’waam and Koptu lived in prehistoric Lake Modoc — the inland sea that covered nearly all flat lands in the Upper Klamath Basin — for millions of years. As a gradually warming climate shrunk the lake into Tule, Lower Klamath and Upper Klamath Lakes, the fish evolved with it.

In Upper Klamath Lake, as the snow began to melt each year and the water began to warm, biologists believe suckers would have traveled to the Williamson River and all over the lake — from Harriman Springs to Bare Island to several small springs along the lake’s eastern shore — to spawn.

Gonyaw said they need to lay eggs in water that’s at a constant temperature and relatively free of bacteria and funguses, thus the need for rivers and springs. The overwhelming majority of that habitat has been lost to development.

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On a sunny day, it’s easy to see where the spring water stops and the lake water begins. Biologists say habitat like this is crucial to the development of healthy sucker larvae, which must survive declining water quality later in the summer.

Though genetic studies of spawners are in their infancy, Gonyaw said each fish’s loyalty to a particular spawning ground could be coded into its DNA and that, when the site is inaccessible, it won't spawn anywhere else. Thanks to the loss of habitat, what was once a distinct population of potentially hundreds of thousands of fish spawning on the shores of Upper Klamath Lake has declined dramatically.

“This is all that’s left in terms of the genetic diversity of the lake-spawning suckers,” Gonyaw said, looking at the group of fish at Sucker Spring. “We don’t have any redundant populations.”

When the lake is above 4,142 feet in elevation, Gonyaw said there’s enough water for suckers to be able to swim onto that gravel with their backs covered and lay eggs. It’s also deep enough to protect the deposited eggs from wave action and from birds and other predators.

“We know for a fact that when the lake is higher, when it is at 4,142, we see fish coming up here where they want to be,” Gonyaw said.

A 2015 study from the U.S. Geological Survey found that in the spring of 2010, when the lake was an average of almost two feet lower than it had been in nearly 40 years, 14% fewer female and 8% fewer male suckers were detected at the springs to spawn. Females spent about 36% less time and males about 20% less time at the springs when they were detected.

A gray box hovering on stilts just offshore at Sucker Spring, detecting the passive integrated transponders, or PIT tags, injected into most adult suckers. USGS used that data in its 2015 study, considering the number of fish detected and the time each fish was detected for as proxies for spawning activity in 2010.

Gonyaw warned that the study didn’t evaluate how many fish were actually successful in spawning, meaning that the low lake elevations that year could have resulted in even greater reductions in the number of eggs produced.

“Just because the fish are showing up here and are being detected, all that means is that they tried,” Gonyaw said. “It does not mean that they were successful in doing what nature was telling them to do.”

Gonyaw said he believes that C’waam and Koptu are treated like second-class species when it comes to the Endangered Species Act, which they were listed under during the 1980s. To him, their protections have taken a back seat even when it comes to species within the Klamath Basin.

“Western values don’t really put a whole lot of emphasis on protecting bottom-feeding fish. If we were talking about the last 5,400 bald eagles, people would be screaming their heads off to save them,” he said. “It shouldn’t come down to cultural values — they have an inherent right to exist.”

Gentry looks to the C’waam creation story, and how thousands of years of traditional practices have centered around those fish at that particular place. Even though river spawners make up a greater portion of the species’ population, losing the lake spawners would have cultural ramifications as well as genetic ones.

“It’s kind of a worldview perspective: that everything that was created and placed here should be here,” he said.

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Upper Klamath Lake is the largest body of fresh water west of the Rocky Mountains and forms the headwaters of the Klamath River.

The most recent USFWS biological opinion requires the Bureau of Reclamation to keep Upper Klamath Lake above 4,142 feet during the months of April and May, when sucker spawning season is at its peak, and overall federal management of the lake has kept it high during the spring since the early 2000s.

Based on then-updated lake level data, a note from former Klamath Tribes Fisheries Biologist Mark Buettner to the files of the Bureau of Reclamation in 1996 suggested that high spring lake levels could provide benefits to the species beyond adequate spawning habitat. It mentioned that higher water levels could push back the beginning of an Aphanizomenon flos-aquae bloom in the summer and reduce its severity. Scientists believe the cyanobacteria bloom and subsequent crash in water quality is linked to juvenile sucker mortality.

“This high lake elevation may also increase the probability of improved water quality conditions during June,” Buettner wrote. “Later occurring blooms decrease the probability that...sensitive larval suckers will experience harmful water quality conditions caused by algal blooms.”

But irrigators and downriver communities in the Klamath Basin believe the lake level approach, which in drought years has reduced the amount of water available for the Klamath Project and flows in the Klamath River, hasn’t helped C’waam and Koptu.

Researchers from federal agencies and tribes alike have come to the consensus that what’s keeping sucker populations from recovering isn’t a lack of larvae — it’s the fact that, for whatever reason, they all die before they make it to adulthood. Additionally, the majority of individuals from both species spawn in the Williamson River: Only between about 10 and 15% of C’waam head to the lakeshore to reproduce, and almost all Koptu spawn in the river.

It’s been decades since recruitment, or the successful survival of a population of juveniles into sub-adults that can reproduce, occurred in Upper Klamath Lake. Every year, conditions in the late summer cause that spring’s juveniles to essentially disappear from the system. But the adults seem to survive relatively normally.

The Tribes filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation earlier this spring, citing the fact that lake levels have dipped below biological opinion requirements during two consecutive years. They argue that Reclamation willingly violated the ESA through their management of Upper Klamath Lake during 2020, and that they must keep the lake above its minimum elevation of 4,138.3 feet to allow suckers to access areas of the lake with better water quality during this summer. A judge recently denied their initial request for a preliminary injunction to have Reclamation reduce flows sent out of the lake down the Klamath River.

Jay Weiner, the Tribes’ ESA lawyer, said conditions in the lake are so bad now that the Tribes are concerned that even adult suckers, many of whom are reaching old age, won’t be able to take them anymore.

“We’re dealing now essentially with geriatric populations of fish,” Weiner said. “The cumulative insult over time to these older fish makes them more vulnerable.”

Mark Johnson, deputy director of Klamath Water Users Association, spent about 15 years as a fisheries biologist for USGS, observing the springs and PIT tagging as many suckers as possible. While he understands the need to maintain the spawning habitat, he said the regulatory fixation on lake levels is hurting Klamath Project irrigators without helping fish.

“It’s one of those things where there are other factors that play into it,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the river spawners provide a buffer when lake levels make the shoreline springs inaccessible, meaning that if a recruitment event were to occur in a year like this, the majority of those fish would have been the offspring of the river spawners. Though he did acknowledge the Tribes’ concern about maintaining the lake spawners as a distinct population.

“They’re successfully spawning on an annual basis. They’re just not making it past that hump,” he said.

Weiner said Reclamation should be focused on ensuring the C’waam and Koptu have every possible chance of continuing their species — if this is the one year when recruitment does occur, lake spawners would be largely left out.

“The odds are never good of winning the lottery, but your odds are better if you have more tickets,” he said. “Reclamation is essentially lighting our tickets on fire this year.”

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The white markings on this boulder show how high the lake is supposed to get each spring to allow C'waam and Koptu to access their spawning habitat. While droughts would have naturally occurred before the watershed was altered, suckers would have had other options for lake spawning. Now, they're limited to just a couple hundred feet of it that's only accessible at high lake levels. Staff photo by Alex Schwartz

Summer Burdick, a sucker biologist for USGS and the lead author of the agency’s 2015 paper on lake levels and spawning habitat, said it’s true that the real bottleneck for suckers is whatever happens to each year-class of juveniles in the late summer — not spawning habitat. What’s more, she said it’s believed that nearly all adult suckers in the lake today were hatched during a three-year period in the early 1990s.

“We don’t know what was so magic about those years, but I can tell you they were drought years,” Burdick said.

Still, Burdick said these lakeshore spawning populations, while not producing the majority of offspring each year, need to be preserved because they contribute to the genetic diversity of the species. There’s also hope that this population, if it recovers, would be what repopulates other shoreline spawning areas in Upper Klamath Lake that haven’t seen reproducing suckers in decades.

“This is the last group of fish that really is suitable to try to restart those other populations,” she said.

And to Weiner’s point about recruitment being a lottery, Burdick agreed that C’waam and Koptu need every egg they can get each spring in case recruitment does end up being successful.

“We definitely wouldn’t want to lose our tickets if that were the case,” she said.

Johnson said Project water users have endured decades of irrigation curtailments that were ostensibly issued to help fish, but to no avail. Had the water management improved species populations, he said he’d put more faith in keeping the lake high.

“We’ve been doing the same thing for 20 years, and the populations aren’t responding to anything,” he said. “We shouldn’t rely so heavily on lake elevations to manage the system.”

For Gonyaw, ESA regulations were never enough to cause a rebound in sucker populations. Instead, he said lake level requirements are just keeping them on life support. There are so few lake spawners left that he worries trying something new will decimate their populations for good, especially if lake levels get so low later in the summer that they run the risk of an adult fish kill.

“The next step of severity is that we only have captive populations, that all the fish in the wild are dead. And that is a very, very real possibility, and we don’t want to do anything that’s going to take that chance,” Gonyaw said.

There’s little doubt that, in a drought year as severe as 2021, Upper Klamath Lake would never have reached 4,142 feet in elevation without human involvement. Based on inconsistent historical data on lake levels, it’s unclear whether the construction of Link River Dam actually allowed the lake to fill higher than it did naturally. But the dam does allow the minimum level to drop a foot lower than researchers believe it could have before colonization, making it harder to return to full pool after a year when Reclamation takes the elevation down to 4,137 feet.

But in a low water year, there would have still been other areas accessible for lake spawning. The same can’t be said today.

“We don’t have fish that are spawning on the other side so we can’t say, ‘OK, let’s watch these and see what happens,’” Gonyaw said. “Before we altered their habitat, before we changed the way it functions, they were fine. They could deal with whatever nature gave them over a long time frame, because they had occupied so many different habitats.”

Burdick believes the lake could have gone as high as 4,143 feet naturally, but that it never consistently did so every year like it does now. She said that’s important because when the lake is low, the lakebed beneath existing wetlands dries out, allowing seeds to germinate. That bolsters habitat that can potentially be used by suckers when the lake returns to full pool in the future.

“From an ecological perspective, having more variation in lake level is probably a good thing, and I would advocate for that,” Burdick said. “I know everybody’s really nervous about that. They don’t want to give up water forever, so trying something new is scary. But we’ve got to try something else, because it’s not bringing suckers back.”