Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.
Dear Oregon Trollers and Oregon Fishing Industry
from Glen Spain, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen (PCFFA) April 16, 2005
As leaders and long-time participants in the Oregon troll fishery, I am sure you are by now painfully aware of the closures triggered this year by past federally-created serious Klamath River water flow problems. The federal government made water decisions to favor irrigation over fisheries that in the Spring of 2002 caused the death of at least 200,000 out-migrant fall chinook, and then later that year the death of what the California Dept. of Fish and Game has estimated may have been as many as 80,000 spawning adults, including ESA-protected coho and many adult fall chinook. This latter fish kill has been called the worst adult fish kill in U.S. history. However, in many ways the juvenile fish kill that preceeded it was more insidious and more devastating -- and this is what is closing most of the Oregon and California ocean salmon fishing down this year. Next year we will be hit by the results of the adult fish kill in the fall of 2002, with more closures likely.
How did this happen? All of this occurred because in 2002 the Klamath Water User's Association (KWUA) and its political allies heavily pressured the Bush Administration to provide full water deliveries to the federal Klamath Irrigation Project's farms in the Upper Klamath Basin, in spite of a major drought. In other words, it became more politically expedient to provide full irrigation water deliveries in the midst of a major drought, taking the difference all from the river, than it was to change wasteful irrigation practices, reduce excess irrigation demand, put more water bank in the river, or to save fishing dependent communities the economic pain they are feeling this year.
There are many wonderful people in the Upper Klamath Basin who are the victims of federal water mismanagment caused of promising more water than was ever actually available, but to be blunt the leadership of the Klamath Water User's Association (KWUA) do not care about fish -- they care about making sure they have all the irrigation water they want, and the fish be damned. The current closed door efforts of the KWUA to "woo" certain salmon trollers on the Oregon coast to their cause is one example of how they hope to use fishermen for their purposes. They hope at least some fishermen will join them in lawsuits intended solely to roll back water reforms in the Klamath Basin (now driven by ESA listings for coho salmon) in the guise of "ESA reform" or "counting hatchery fish" in ESA listings. Ending those water reforms, however, would plunge the Klamath fishery into ruin, triggering more major fish kills and fishery closures worse than this year's that would likely become permanent. However, ending those much overdue water reforms in the Klamath is the "hidden agenda" of both the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) and the Pacific Legal Foundation it has allied itself with.
The planned lawsuit by the Pacific Legal Foundation that the KWUA wants the Oregon Trollers Association to join is not really about hatchery fish or harvests -- its about making ESA-driven Klamath Basin water reforms go away so irrigators can grab more water from the river. Either way fishermen will lose: If hatchery fish do become fully counted under the ESA, this means many more harvest restrictions on what is left to us because they will then be ESA protected just like wild fish; if the ESA listing itself ultimately goes away, however, so does the 100,000 acre-foot Klamath "water bank" and all the water reforms to date that prevent more fish kills, and NOTHING will then stand in the way of eventually drying up the Klamath entirely or driving salmon to extinction throughout the river. It's pretty darn hard to see how that helps salmon fishermen in any way!
Nearly every lawsuit intended to roll back salmon restoration efforts coastwide has been spearheaded by the Pacific Legal Foundation, by the way. Their clients include nearly every industry that makes money destroying salmon habitat.
When not enough water is left in the Klamath River, the fish die in mass. This is what happened in 2002 and why so few spawners returned this year, triggering widespread Oregon and California closures. The economic losses to the west coast commercial salmon fishery this year alone (as compared to last year's normal season) are projected to exceed $100 million, and possibly much more.
This $100 million is, by the way, several times the estimated $30 million in economic damages suffered by Klamath Irrigation Project farmers in 2001, when they lost about one-third of their normal year's water allocation to prevent salmon extinctions in the lower river during the worst drought in 72-years. These losses were unfortunate, and because of that drought upper Klamath Basin farming communities had to bear a real economic burden in 2001, very much as fishing communities have had to bear massive unemployment for many years (and lower river Tribes for generations) for lack of water for salmon. Water problems in the Klamath are not the rank and file farmer's fault, nor have we ever blamed them for water problems caused by federal mismanagement. In fact, PCFFA (including myself personally) helped lobby for federal disaster relief for those very same Klamath farmers in 2001. Most are innocent and hard-working folks caught up in federally created water problems not of their own making. However, in the end, say OSU and Oregon State economists, most of their economic damages from 2001 were compensated through a variety of federal disaster relief programs.
However, fishery losses in 2002 from the two fish kills, and the even greater losses coastal communities are facing today from closures caused by the 2002 fish kills, have never been compensated. Nor have all the hundreds of millions of dollars in losses suffered by coastal communities over the past 25 years as more and more water diversions in the Klamath Basin caused the Klamath salmon stocks to decline and trigger closures throughout the Klamath Management Zone (KMZ) ports as well as far north and south.
The cause of the fishery disaster this year is well known and inevitably follows from the fish kills of 2002. These losses are not, however, an act of God; they are the deliberate result of current federal water policy. The KWUA likes to say otherwise, and many of their leadership actually believe it, but both fish kills in 2002 were without doubt triggered by federally-mandated near-record lower river flows in 2002. Two independent and through scientific reviews, one federal and one state, confirmed this.
The Bureau of Reclamation controls all the flows that pass through Iron Gate Dam, the lowest in a serious of small dams on the Klamath that block the mid-river. These flows can amount to half of the total volume at the estuary during critical summer months and in dry years such as 2002. In the summer months the Klamath Irrigation Project uses 50% or more of the TOTAL FLOW of the Klamath River at Link River Dam where it splits to go downstream or into the irrigation system. Other off-Project water users also take a large water cut before it even gets to Upper Klamath Lake and Link River Dam. In the end, the majority of water that originally flowed out of the Upper Basin to feed salmon fisheries has now been diverted to feed irrigated agriculture. Naturally the river runs very low as a result.
This year's collapse traces straight back to the intentional (and politically motivated) spring 2002 decision by the Bush Administration, acting through the Bureau of Reclamation, to permanently reduce flows to the lower Klamath River to record lows. By keeping back far more water for federal irrigation than recommended by even their own scientists and by fishermen and fishery management agencies, the government left too little in the river for salmon to survive their journey to the spawning areas -- and the salmon be damned!
The political goal of the Klamath Water Users Association's leadership so far has been to keep this status quo going as long as possible, not to reduce what is clearly excessive irrigation demand to any degree, and not to put more water back into the river. This is not a solution to the problem of over-appropriation, it is only the road to more conflict. However, if the KWUA leadership are willing to seriously discuss putting more water back in the river by using willing seller purchase and incentive programs for reducing excessive demand or curtailing wasteful irrigation, by all means fishermen should work with them. PCFFA certainly will. But until folks in leadership positions in the upper Klamath Basin are willing to be more rational and to seek real and permanent solutions to the over-draft of the arid basin's limited water supply, there is little hope of real change and fishermen must continue to fight for every drop of water in the river!
This is not a new issue. It has been festering for decades, but very little has been done about it except to continue to expand irrigated agriculture in the Upper Basin and lower river tributaries, with more and more water being taken out of the river every year. Even today, the Oregon Water Resources Department continues to give out more irrigation water permits, even during a massive drought. The water over-draft becomes worse every year as a result.
Nor is this the first fishery crisis triggered by excessive water diversions in the Upper Klamath Basin. For example, let me quote from the attached Congressional Testimony by Tom Robinson, then the Manager of the Oregon Salmon Commission, delivered to a Senate Congressional Hearing held July 1994 in Klamath Falls, considering what to do about the "Klamath Water Crisis" more than a decade ago:
"It is critical to understand that problems in the freshwater habitat for spawning and rearing that natural run of Klamath River Fall Chinook is a major factor among the causes of Oregon's salmon fishing crisis.... Now, it is crystal clear that the water users along the main stem and in the upper Klamath Basin must play a bigger part in providing both the quantity and the quality of water required by the salmon using the systems. It is evident that the Oregon side of the system is now the weak link in the water chain, causing very costly loses by all others who are moving to return Klamath fall chinook stock toward healthy abundances.....Our industry has taken huge losses amounting to tens of millions of dollars annually to help return the Klamath salmon to health. It is with that investment made and in mind that we urge you to move forward with meaningful legislation and vigorous reform to assure that the upper Klamath Basin contributes fully to salmon recovery efforts. We also urge the many good people who rely on that basin and its water for their incomes to come forward and make sacrifices, smaller than we have made, in order that we too can return to the business of producing a valuable food harvest to the benefit of Oregon's economy."
Unfortunately, since 1994 the Klamath Water User's Association leadership has blocked all efforts to make those much needed reforms, including blocking $125 million in federal funds within the 2003 Farm Bill (against the interests and protest of many of their own members) that would have allowed willing seller farmers in the Upper Basin to sell some of their excess water back to the river on a permanent basis.
In its most fundamental terms, the combined irrigation water demand of the Upper Klamath Basin greatly exceeds the water actually available. The only place the difference can come from is from the river and from the salmon fisheries. Tragically, almost nothing has been done to rebalance this excess demand and to bring it back into line with the supply of water actually available.
Stagnant flows reduced by the Bureau of Reclamation to permanent drought levels are now encouraging the rapid spread of fish parasites, causing toxic algae blooms, and in general reducing the Klamath River every year to a toxic trickle of its former self. The river remains at very high risk of additional massive fish kills, which it has suffered in 5 of the past 7 years. Major juvenile fish kills from rampant and spreading warm-water diseases happen now every year.
PCFFA folks are working with some of the more reasonable farmers and ranchers in the basin (of which there are many) to try to craft fair and equitable long term solutions, and we will continue to do so. We will also work with the farmers to get more money from Congress for disaster assistance for the Upper Basin if necessary. We hope they work with us to get disaster assistance for the lower river, very much needed this year.
Farmers and fishermen, as family food providers, have much in common and should support each other's efforts. We NEVER blame the rank-and-file farmers for the dilemmas they have been put in by the water mismanagement of the federal government. After all, we too have been victims of similar federal mismanagement, and like fishermen who fish where they are told, farmers only farm where they are given water and land. PCFFA's hard work to get more water in the river has NEVER been about "getting the farmers" except in the paranoid fantasies of those in deepest denial. Keeping enough water in the river to keep fishing communities alive is not "anti-farmer," its only common sense and fair play. It is allowing the nearly complete dewatering of a once-great river and the deliberate destruction of all those communities who depend on its fish that is irrational and unjust.
Unfortunately, denial, and misinformation is still rampant within much of the upper basin irrigation community. So are efforts to undercut and discredit and demonize people and fishermen's groups (like PCFFA) who have real issues with distorted federal water policies that write off whole coastal fishing communities and destroy thousands of fishermen's jobs to provide ever more irrigation water in a desert. The extinction of salmon in the Klamath River, once the third largest salmon producing river in America, is not an option fishermen can live with.
There is much that can be done constructively and together with the Klamath Project's and other upper basin farmers. The most pressing need, though, is for fishing communities to survive this year with extremely short seasons and facing economic disaster.
To that end, PCFFA is requesting the two Governors of Oregon and California for Disaster Declarations, which can open up some federal fishery disaster relief funding. You should support those efforts! Copies of the two letters sent to the two Governors
Page Updated: Tuesday May 01, 2018 03:33 PM Pacific
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