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Another blow delivered to Klamath theory

By TAM MOORE Oregon Staff Writer, Capital Press

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 California.

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 quantity.

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 water.

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 fish shrinks.

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 elements involved.

“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 confidence.”

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 week’s gathering.

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 watershed.

Tam Moore is based in Medford, Ore. His e-mail address is cappress@charter.net.

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