Another blow delivered to Klamath theory
By TAM MOORE Oregon Staff Writer, Capital
KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – The props under U.S.
Bureau of Reclamation Klamath Project
operations were blasted again Feb. 3 as
federal agencies opened a four-day Upper
Klamath Basin Science Workshop.
“We could find no hint of relationship
between lake level” and three technical
factors commonly blamed for killing sucker
fish in Upper Klamath Lake, said William
Lewis. The University of Colorado aquatic
specialist was chairman of a National
Research Council review of federal
biological opinions designed to protect two
sucker fish species and a coho salmon run.
Those opinions and a drought-shortened water
supply triggered the April 2001 denial of
irrigation water to 1,100 project farms.
Lewis spoke during the opening session of a
federal workshop aimed at defining the gaps
in scientific knowledge needed to end
long-simmering controversies in the
10-million-acre basin shared by Oregon and
From 1992, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service issued its first biological opinion
on irrigation operations, specifying
end-of-the-month lake levels has been the
primary measure to assure sucker habitat.
Scientists have called lake levels
“surrogates” for a complex ecosystem that
isn’t fully understood but obviously is in
trouble for both water quality and water
Upper Klamath Lake, a 90,000-acre
impoundment at full pool, is the primary
reservoir for the project. The suckers, once
so numerous they were fished commercially,
crashed in the 1980s. By 1988 they were
given Endangered Species Act protection.
USFWS’ most recent opinion, in June 2002,
repeats mandatory minimum lake levels.
Neither USFWS nor BuRec has indicated plans
to seek revision of the opinion despite
Lewis’ comment and the written NRC report
issued in the fall of 2003.
Lewis, who specializes in limnology, the
science of lake water quality, said massive
changes in land use around Upper Klamath
Lake caused changes in the water, and
triggered a blue-green algae that about 40
or 50 years ago began dominating the summer
lake. Among other things, the algae soaks up
oxygen needed for fish, changes the acid
level of the water to make water less
hospitable and generates so much chlorophyll
that light transmission is interrupted.
Lewis suggested that those seeking recovery
of the struggling sucker fish populations
look beyond the lake to other strategies
such as improving spawning habitat and
creating summer refuges with oxygenated
The lake level theory has some defenders,
including Larry Dunsmoor, chief biologist
for the Klamath Tribes. Dunsmoor argues that
habitat for the smallest sucker fish, called
larvae, includes the edge of Upper Klamath
Lake and marshes connected to it. If lake
levels fall, he said, habitat for larval
Farmer Steve Kandra, representing water
users at the science conference, said he’s
pleased with the debate between Dunsmoor and
Lewis. “It’s much better raised here, in
this forum, than in the 9th Circuit Court.”
Kandra said litigation isn’t a solution,
while technical collaboration encouraged by
the conference will help. What will also
help, he said, is an understanding by
government officials and academics of all
“Don’t ask me to turn my irrigation project
off in the middle of the summer unless you
know about the plants I’m taking care of and
what will happen to them,” he said.
Kandra said there was cooperation among
stakeholders before the 2001 water cutoff.
“Then the door closed. The rapport was
destroyed. Now we are starting to build some
While this week’s science conference
concentrated on Upper Basin issues, on Feb.
24, a three-day meeting involving all
watersheds in the 10-million-acre basin will
be held at Oregon Institute of Technology in
Klamath Falls. Denise Buck, an organizer,
said some of those sessions will reach
beyond the technical questions raised by the
researchers and agency managers at this
The federal officials are under pressure to
resolve Klamath issues, including prodding
from a Cabinet-level task force that
President Bush tasked to deliver long-range
recommendations in the fall of 2003. Their
report has yet to surface, but the Bush
budget delivered last week lists nearly $200
million of basin spending thought to be
related to recovery of the massive
Tam Moore is based in Medford, Ore. His
e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.