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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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The following letter is from Ric Costales. Ric has lived and worked on the land and in the woods in the Klamath Basin for 35 years. He is currently the Natural Resource Policy Specialist for Siskiyou County. This letter represents his personal opinions and is not an expression on behalf of the County of Siskiyou.

Dear Green River friends:

I understand from a friend of mine in Rock Springs that there was a recent forum having to do with water issues and the matter of the Klamath Basin was brought up as a solution in progress.  Apparently an image was conveyed of happy stakeholders awaiting a New Day.  Well, yeah, the Tribes are probably happy for numerous reasons. And, yeah, the big irrigators are probably content thinking they have secured the amount of water that is positively the absolute minimum they can economically live with.  And, yeah, environmentalists are thinking they have taken a small step, but a first great step for mankind in “freeing” all the rivers.  But that is it.  It is not any sort of a rosy picture for the majority of people in the Klamath Basin, especially the small irrigators who are so far left out in the cold.  Nor does it come without impact on the future of renewable hydropower and irrigated agriculture in America.

The position of Siskiyou County has been and still is that a decision to take the dams out is premature.  Given the magnitude of the irrevocable step being proposed, no compelling argument based on fish or water quality science or economic feasibility has been presented.  Neither has sufficient effort been made to investigate the mitigation for negative impacts.  This is a shameful rush to judgment for political reasons, plain and simple.  Any other analysis of the situation is self-serving, ignorant or both.

We in Siskiyou County are well aware of the flow characteristics of the Klamath River.  People are going to be shocked when they see how little water comes down the river in dry years.  The dams are the only thing mitigating the flow in those years.  They are the last thing between the irrigated agriculture in the Upper Basin and losing the water completely.  When (not if!) the salmon fail to rebound if the dams are decommissioned, there will be immense pressure to end irrigated agriculture in the entire Klamath Basin.  The farmers who have sold out thinking that supporting decommissioning will somehow guarantee their way of life will have only bought themselves time to live out their lives on their farms.  It will be the next generation who will have to live with the final round of “takings.”

To be fair, the big irrigators were faced with “Sophie’s Choice,” having to choose which “child” was “killed.”  The dams weren’t in their backyard, so it was easiest to cut them loose.  I think they know what they did, and the futility of the bargain they made.  Honestly, I don’t know that I would have done differently had I been in their shoes.  But the point is, this is not a rosy scenario by any stretch.

I heard that “intrinsic value” was mentioned as something taxpayers were willing to subsidize to some significant extent.   How much are the American people willing to pay for that?  Was this pitch made before or after the economic meltdown that is in the process of making the world reassess the limits of governments’ abilities to make everyone’s dreams come true?  I can flat guarantee you that people are pretty soon going to pick commodity production and renewable energy over amorphous things like “intrinsic value” of “wild” rivers.  This is particularly true when the difference in “intrinsic value” is the difference between one of the most picturesque, productive and ecologically diverse agricultural landscapes in America and what the landscape will turn into in the absence of irrigation.  The only way this “intrinsic value” will ever be actually paid for is if the government pays, and the Federal Reserve printing presses are already working overtime.  It is tragic that one has to visit the Klamath Basin to dispel the images of ecological abuse portrayed in the media and thus understand what is at stake in all this nonsense.

I also heard that logging was again referenced as a scapegoat for the problems of the Klamath River.  The timber industry in the Klamath Basin in California has almost been extirpated since the spotted owl issue came to town.  Siskiyou County is the 5th largest of California’s 58 counties, and we have never been less than the 3rd largest timber producing County annually and often have been Number 1.  There is now not a single board sawn in our County.  We have two veneer mills but no one is sawing any boards.  There are a handful of logging contractors left struggling to survive.  The sediment alluded to in all the finger pointing on the dams is a relic of long bygone days.  Timber harvest regulations in coho salmon watersheds in California are so strict that the season is so short that it is almost impossible to retain skilled employees.  At least in a few locations the ground does freeze and some winter operations can take place.  That is if the snowfall is not too severe and the haul roads freeze or are rocked.

What sediment issues that do exist and are tied to logging are legacy issues.  The culprits are almost exclusively roads on USFS land, because the Forest Service can’t log to pay for the infrastructure investment required by redesigning roads, resizing culverts, rocking roads, etc.  This past summer, over 200,000 acres have burned in Siskiyou County, probably greater than 30% catastrophically.  The USFS has been told by local environmental groups that, “You won’t salvage a stick!” because they will appeal and litigate until all value is lost.  Being continuously victimized by such ideological demagoguery and senseless waste, it should be obvious that the Klamath National Forest’s ability to generate any funding for infrastructure through timber projects is non-existent.

And this is logging’s problem?  Just like nature but exponentially faster, industries change and adapt.  The forestry and wood products industries of today have experienced a similar evolution in technology over the past 30 years as has happened in the computer industry.   But still, we hear the hue and cry of days gone by….

As to the $100+ million on permitting and $100+ million in fish ladder mitigation that was mentioned as an argument as to why decommissioning was the right choice.  The analysis and process required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for dam removal including the 20,000,000 cubic yards of sediment (perhaps toxic) behind the dams is going to approach the money spent on permitting, so there may be no appreciable savings on “bureaucratic paper.”  The best solution to mitigation for fish passage has not even been looked at adequately.  There is an alternative that connects two creeks (Bogus Creek and Cold Creek) by a short canal that would bypass the three dams that don’t have fish ladders and cost far less than the exorbitant figure seized on to make fish passage appear prohibitive.

And, finally, there has been absolutely no credible investigation on what decommissioning is going to cost.  There have been some people in the know who are throwing around a figure of $1 billion total.  However, virtually nothing official has been done to yield something that would give us the ability to assess feasibility or generate some sort of Cost/Benefit analysis.  In other words, the figures being bandied around are not comparing apples to oranges, they are comparing apples to…..nothing!!!!

There is absolutely no denying that mitigation of dam impact is challenging.  It may, in fact, be prohibitive and decommissioning the least bad alternative.  At this point, however, the Powers-That-Be have decreed that America shall experiment with dam decommissioning in an effort to set America’s rivers “free.”  And the Klamath River has been selected as the guinea pig.  Viewed in the light of experimentation, our area probably is the best place to try this idea out.  No large urban populations, with money, lawyers and political horsepower to combat the iniquity.  No one here but us poor people, and damn few of us to boot (read:  the local uproar is manageable).  And the watershed is probably in excess of 60% federal ownership.  For good or ill, Siskiyou County will almost inevitably be the poster child of America’s return to “wild” rivers.

So, this whole thing is fraught with political hardball, uncertainty and hardship.  Portraying it as anything less is irresponsible.  But then again, personal responsibility has been vanishing from the American character at an alarming rate since my generation (Baby Boomers) came of age… .


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