Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.
Problems still plague Klamath fish
Tuesday, August 31, 2004 · Last updated 1:31 a.m. PT
Klamath salmon dispute nears compromise
EUREKA, Calif. -- Two years after more than 35,000 salmon died on the Klamath River due to low water, the different groups fighting over the future of the area are inching toward a so-far elusive goal: compromise.
Groups including American Indian tribes, commercial fishermen and conservationists said Monday they are tired of battling each other and moving closer toward the compromises necessary to find long-term solutions.
About 120 people attended a forum sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson to assess the status of salmon in the Klamath River after the 2002 deaths of between 35,000 to 70,000 fish, mostly adult chinook salmon.
"This was a pretty significant first step," said Thompson, a Democrat. "We heard from both sides. Everybody was singing from the same sheet of music."
Progress has been made, with $16 million spent on habitat restoration, more water released down the Trinity and Klamath rivers and increased monitoring and research, said Mike Long, a field supervisor from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, the dominant farmers group in the upper basin, and Mike Orcutt of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, which has been battling for water for salmon, joined several representatives of county governments and government agencies who said interest groups were tired of fighting and want a long-term solution.
"I realize we are going to have to sit down with the tribes and reasonable conservation groups, the stakeholders who are really impacted, and come up with a package," Keppen said. "It will take somebody with stature, a governor or somebody with a major portfolio to bring us together. Right now there is too much litigation, too many press releases. I'm guilty. So are others."
In 2001, Klamath Basin farmers pried open irrigation gates and formed a bucket brigade to dump water into irrigation ditches after the government cut off water to benefit salmon and other fish.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton's subsequent decision to divert water from the Klamath River to 1,400 farms was criticized by environmentalists and tribal leaders, who said it was the reason for the fish kill.
Not all groups on Monday were willing to compromise. Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, whose reservation straddles the Klamath River where most of the fish died in 2002, alleges the decision to restore water to farmers rather than devoting it to fish violated tribal trust obligations. Their lawsuit goes to trial next month.
"We are not willing to compromise anymore when you are killing our fish," Fletcher said.
Meanwhile, biologists still don't understand why untold numbers of juvenile salmon succumbed to parasites last spring. Long noted that most of the habitat work since the die-off has been done in tributaries, not the mainstem where chinook spawn.
"Whether improvement means you've flattened out the rate of decline or whether things are improving, I don't think anybody can say that," Long said.
Eureka commercial salmon fisherman Dave Bitts warned that the 2002 fish kill could result in so few adults returning to the Klamath in 2005 that fishing seasons would have to be shut down off most of California and Oregon.
EUREKA -- Calls for leadership and cooperation were mixed with a sense of desperation from fishermen and tribes at a hearing on the Klamath River basin's ecological maze of pitfalls and politics.
More than 100 people pressed into the City Council chambers here on Monday to hear from regulators, tribes, irrigators and fishermen. Led by Rep. Mike Thompson, most speakers agreed that diverse interests need to work together to restore the Klamath basin on a large scale.
"I'm one who believes it's been piecemeal at best," the St. Helena Democrat said.
The hearing comes as the federal government is releasing billions of gallons of water purchased from Central Valley water users down the Trinity River. The releases are meant to cool and raise the lower Klamath River, where the specter of a massive fish kill like that in 2002 still looms.
For now, conditions on the river have improved. But fishermen are still worried that the offspring of the 2002 fish kill may not be numerous enough to allow fishing next year.
When federal fisheries managers laid out studies being done to determine the effects of the increased flows, Thompson grew frustrated, asking how the effort might be sped up.
He said restoration projects on Klamath tributaries won't do much unless there is water in the river. Thompson likened it to paving the side streets while neglecting the highway.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Project Manager Dave Sabo said there must be a reduction in demands on the system from all sides, especially as precipitation appears to be dropping off and average temperatures are rising in the basin.
Throughout the meeting, nearly every interest voiced disappointment in Reclamation's water bank, used to boost flows to fish downstream. This year, more than 80,000 acre feet has been released -- water bought for $5.5 million from irrigators in the Klamath Irrigation Project.
The project will use a total of about 240,000 acre feet this year. Next year, Reclamation will try to buy 100,000 acre feet for $7.5 million.
"We hate the water bank," said Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Dan Keppen, "but it was sold to us as a temporary solution."
The basin runs from the Sprague and Williamson rivers in Oregon, into the warm, shallow Upper Klamath Lake, down through a series of dams and to the sea at Klamath. It also picks up water from the Scott and Shasta rivers, and its main tributary the Trinity River -- tapped by Central Valley water and power users -- and its water supplies refuges for waterfowl on both sides of the central Oregon-California border.
Not considered in plans regulating the Klamath Irrigation Project are chinook salmon, lamprey or sturgeon valuable to several downstream Indian tribes. Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, said the federal government has shirked its responsibilities and refuses to seek a permanent reduction in demand from the project.
"It's the goal of the federal government to operate this project as the status quo," Fletcher said.
The tribe will go to court in September to attempt to prove Reclamation's operations were behind the deaths of up to 68,000 chinook salmon in 2002.
Commercial fishermen were also critical of the government's actions on the river. Eureka fisherman Dave Bitts said he's highly concerned that the fish kill, and a juvenile fish kill that claimed perhaps 200,000 fry that same year, could shut down salmon fishing from the Columbia River to Monterey. He said fishermen would seek federal compensation if it happens.
He also addressed Sabo's calls for compromise, saying there was no more room to give on the fishing industry's side. Heavy restrictions on fishing for Klamath fish have reduced the industry by 80 percent in recent decades, he said.
Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations advocated reducing agricultural demand for water, removing some of the river's dams, and restoring the Scott and Shasta rivers.
"This isn't rocket science," Grader said. "What we really need is leadership to do it."
Klamath County, Ore., Commissioner John Elliot raised the idea of creating more storage to give the project flexibility by storing up to 500,000 acre feet of water in the upper basin.
Environmentalists at the meeting raised concerns about federal timber sales in the watershed that they claimed would further harm salmon by silting in streams.
Toward the end of the meeting, Thompson asked Keppen to bring together irrigators and elected representatives to collaborate with other interests in the basin.
Keppen said the constant stream of litigation and press releases hasn't been helping anyone, and Thompson agreed. He looked back on 2002, when he delivered dead fish to the door of the U.S. Interior Department.
"I hope I never have to bring 500 pounds of dead salmon to Washington again," Thompson said.
NOTE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, any copyrighted
material herein is distributed without profit or payment to those who have
expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit
research and educational purposes only. For more information go to:
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
Copyright © klamathbasincrisis.org, 2004, All Rights Reserved