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Farmers, fishermen discover common ground on Klamath


It's seldom participants describe a 31/2-hour meeting as “monumental” or “a hell of a meeting” and agree by consensus that similar meetings must continue.

But that's what fishermen and visiting Klamath County officials called the get-together at Coos Bay City Hall on Wednesday night.

The discussion was about salmon and water, farms and the Klamath River and the water is shared between farmers, fish and wildlife on the Oregon-California border country.

Coos County Commissioner John Griffith arranged the meeting. He invited state legislators as well, making the first tentative steps at understanding upriver issues and downriver issues. Klamath County Commissioner Bill Brown also attended.

There are far more similarities than differences, they discovered.

Federal fishery managers slashed this year's salmon season for commercial trollers, a result of projected diminished returns of wild Klamath River fall Chinook five years to the day after water was shut off for farmers. In Southern Oregon, trollers cannot fish at all this year. The industry is waiting for a federal disaster declaration that could open the way for federal aid.

We're waiting for something to happen, Griffith said during opening introductions.

By the end of the meeting, that wasn't the case. Sens. Joanne Verger, D-Coos Bay; and Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls; and Reps. Wayne Krieger, R-Gold Beach, and Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, had solid ideas about how to proceed - getting financial aid to trollers in the short term and continuing to push Klamath River system solutions in the long term.

Understanding the plight of both industries is a critical first step, Roblan said.

“We can't lose this tradition,” he said.


Farmer Bill Ransom put the Klamath Basin issue into perspective by showing its change through history, before and after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Project was initiated. The project, a series of dams, storage areas and canals, is responsible for water reclamation and irrigation in the Klamath Basin.

And it's been the project that has created better flows in some parts of the river, thereby benefiting fish, as well as providing water for hundreds of farmers in a dry, arid, region.

Most importantly, he said, the project, after 1911 or so, actually put more water in the Klamath River. Farmers actually use only between 2 and 4 percent of the water that flows into the Klamath, Ransom said, and that water is usually very warm.

“If not for the project, (the water) wouldn't be there at all,” he said.

The project is estimated to be between 90- and 95-percent efficient, he said, with water being re-used by farmers and wildlife up to seven times, in some cases, before it leaves the system.

Family Farm Alliance Executive Director Dan Keppen reiterated that point, noting that farmers have participated in several new conservation techniques following 2001, when the water was turned off to the basin, and several years of drought.

One of the issues is bureaucracy, Keppen said. In 2001, during the drought, one federal agency said more water must be kept in Klamath Lake to protect one species of Endangered Species Act-listed fish; another federal agency said more water must be released downstream to protect a different species of ESA-listed fish. How is it possible to find a balance under those conditions, he said.

Fishermen are in a similar situation.

There are healthy runs of salmon returning to other rivers, but because they might catch a Klamath River fish, they can't access the healthy stocks.

About 20 fishermen from Brookings to Newport were in attendance, as well as one sport fisherman.

John Ward, president of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders Southwest Chapter, said he supports the commercial fleet.

“We want them back on the water. That's the best solution to their problem,” Ward said.

He also commented on another issue: divisiveness. Reports in the past have turned the water crisis issue into a fishermen vs. farmers issue, or a fishermen vs. tribes, or tribes vs. farmers issue. There are so many sides to this situation that blaming one another is not part of the solution, several speakers said. Oftentimes, it's just nature that introduces instability.

“I've been lobbied by so many environmental groups to blame the farmers,” Ward said, “but we don't want to get into that divide-and-conquer thing.”

Ward, like other fishermen, said the meeting was enlightening.

Gold Beach fisherman Scott Boley recognized there likely could be no silver bullet to fixing the Klamath.

“The Klamath Basin farmers couldn't fix it if they wanted to,” Boley said, noting that the whole river system, all 250-plus miles of it and its tributaries in both Oregon and California, not just the upper Klamath Basin, must be considered.

The Klamath contingent also suggested ways the fishermen could make their voices heard, such as building political alliances, but one suggestion stood out, supported by state legislators.

“Media coverage is essential,” Whitsett said. That, more than most anything else will apply political pressure, he said.

That gave the trollers something to think about, though their main concern right now, is getting financial relief.

Fisherman Rick Goche said by this time last year, he'd grossed more than $20,000 salmon fishing. This year, not a nickel. That's no way to pay bills.

“We're desperate. We can't wait any longer,” Charleston troller Jeff Reeves said.




Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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