Klamath Water Users Association 

Dan Keppen's letter to the editor of Mother Jones magazine

April 21, 2003


April 21, 2003


Mother Jones
731 Market Street, Suite 600
San Francisco, California 94103

Dear Editor:

I am disappointed with the recent article written by Bruce Barcott on the Klamath River ("What’s a River For", May/June). Granted, Mr. Barcott’s interview with the Carletons accurately represented the pain and suffering that hundreds of families like the Carletons endured when Klamath Project irrigation deliveries were curtailed in 2001 to meet the alleged needs of three fish species protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, the remainder of the article contains numerous misrepresentations and omissions that, unfortunately, leave the reader with the impression that the Klamath Project– representing only 2 percent of the area of the 10.5 million-acre Klamath River watershed – is somehow responsible for the lion’s share of real and perceived environmental problems throughout the Klamath Basin.

The following has been prepared to point out the most obvious mischaracterizations in Mr. Barcott’s article.


The eye-catching subtitle to the article’s headline has a reference to "pesticide-poisoned birds" that is nowhere elaborated on in the article itself. This is likely due to the fact that, after years of study, there has not been one shred of evidence to suggest pesticide use on the lease lands is detrimental to wildlife. Mr. Barcott notes that 46 different chemicals are regularly applied to the fields, yet he fails to explain that 90 percent of the registered pesticides used in California, which has the most stringent pesticide rules in the nation, are disallowed on the lease lands in accordance with a stringent pest management plan. While the article describes former refuge manager Phil Norton’s questions about the refuge when he first arrived, it does not reflect his comment made last year, which was referenced in a debate on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. "We have done all sorts of monitoring," said Norton, in reference to a relationship between pesticide use and harm to waterfowl. "We have not found a smoking gun." If breeding grounds are so "polluted", why does this area host the largest population of wintering bald eagles in the lower 48 states?

Incidentally, a caption that accompanies a photo of an empty, snow covered drainage ditch incorrectly states that the ditch is carrying water towards Tule Lake National Widlife Refuge. Again – the ditch is empty – and that’s snow, not some sort of lethal chemical compound.

Klamath Project Water Use

The article contains several misleading references to the Project’s share of water user. The Project does not divert "most of the river’s water"; only a fraction of the water in the entire Klamath watershed is used for consumptive purposes. Depletion by Klamath Project consumptive use in irrigation and reservoir evaporation is estimated to be less than 5% of the total annual Klamath River runoff into the Pacific Ocean.

NMFS Whistleblower

The article suggests that government malfeasance is afoot with Bush Administration policy makers, citing claims made by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) whistleblower Michael Kelly. The article fails to mention last month’s determination by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) that Kelly’s allegations did not warrant further investigation and that the file for this case will be closed.

Phantom Falls

If Mr. Barcott had researched local historical archives, he would have discovered photographs showing, indeed, that falls did exist on the Link River, contrary to his assertion that the falls were simply a ploy fabricated by local civic leaders to attract homesteaders. While these falls were by no means of the Niagara variety, the drop in the river was sufficient to generate white water – a fact backed up by historic photos.

Farmland Habitat

Mr. Barcott asserts that "any life that didn’t grow in neat harrowed rows began to drain out of the basin". Apparently he did not have the opportunity to witness the tremendous variety of wildlife that use the farmlands and Klamath Project water courses for habitat and migration corridors. The 2001 Project water cutoff tragically underscored the vital linkage that exists between irrigated farmland and wildlife. Water that would normally flow through farmland habitat was directed instead towards three species protected under the federal act. The vitality of over 430 other wildlife species was threatened when subjected to the same fate as farmers. According to the California Waterfowl Association, "For nearly 100 years, farmers and ranchers of the Klamath Basin have coexisted with immense populations of wildlife. Many species, especially waterfowl, are familiar visitors to their highly productive farms and ranches. Klamath Basin agriculture provides a veritable nursery for wildlife."

"Everglades of the West?"

The article refers to the Klamath Basin as "arid high country" and "The Everglades of the West". Well… which is it? The Project and the national wildlife refuges sit within a basin surrounded by the Cascade Mountains and other volcanic highlands, whose tributary areas capture substantial winter snowfall. The Klamath Project provides storage so that streamflows generated from these areas can be used throughout the year. Without this storage in place, the streamflows in the lower Klamath River would likely be much lower in late summer and fall months, when salmon begin their upstream migration.

Factors Impacting Fish

Mr. Barcott laments the diminishing populations of suckers and coho salmon and suggests that nearly 100 years of Klamath Project operations were somehow responsible for these declines. He makes no mention of other factors that likely contributed to the decline of both species. For example, researchers at Oregon State University have determined that elimination of a state-sponsored snag fishery that allowed harvest of spawning adult suckers from the 1960s until 1987 is the most important factor contributing to increased sucker populations in the past 15 years. The suggestion that coho salmon were almost wiped out due to Project operations is also questionable. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have described the most important eight factors as "most frequently referred to with regard to recent population declines" of anadromous fish in the Klamath River. Those factors are:

  • Over fishing
  • Logging
  • Trinity River transbasin diversion
  • Irrigation diversions in lower Klamath tributaries
  • 1964 flood
  • 1976-1977 drought
  • Sea lion predation
  • Brown trout predation.

Klamath Project operations were not identified by USFWS as a significant factor

adversely affecting coho and other andadromous fish downstream of the Klamath Project.

Notably absent in Mr. Barcott’s article was any discussion of the Trinity River, the

Klamath River’s largest tributary, the destination for most of the fish that died last fall.

Since the fish die-off occurred below the confluence of the Trinity and the Klamath

rivers, it is impossible to accurately portray the Klamath watershed without addressing

this critical issue.

"Overflowing" Irrigation Ditches

Mr. Barcott notes that last year "irrigation ditches were overflowing with water". In a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation last fall, a senior state highway official clarified this misconception. The only instance where the state had observed ditch water "overflowing" was near Fort Klamath (25 miles outside of the Klamath Project), where standing water in a ditch seeped into the road subsurface and damaged part of one localized stretch of highway.

Farmland Conversion

The article contains serious misperceptions on refuge lease lands and perpetuates the myth that retiring these lands will somehow reduce overall Basin water use. In one paragraph, Mr. Barcott notes that "excess" water used to irrigate lease lands would otherwise keep the wetlands wet. In the very next paragraph, Bob Hunter theorizes that taking those 32,000 acres out of production will somehow generate additional water that can be "put back in the river". What Mr. Barcott fails to explain is the rest of the lease lands plan proposed by Hunter and other environmental interests: those lands would be converted "back" to wetlands or refuge habitat. Unfortunately, studies completed by the University of California extension office have shown that wetlands consumptively use and evaporate substantially more water than that used by crops grown on the leaselands.

Relative to this later issue, our organization is not "dead set" against a buyout, and in fact, we have developed a water bank concept that focuses on temporarily idling lands in drier years to provide water for ESA purposes. KWUA will soon convene a working group that addresses the contentious issue of farmland conversion. While proponents of a Project down-sizing suggest that this will somehow solve the water crisis, we simply have not seen the data to support this claim, particularly if farmland is to be converted to wetlands, which use more water than farms. However, we will attempt to investigate the role – if any – that land conversion might play, and offer recommendations that minimize community impacts, while encouraging young farmers to stay in the Basin.

Proactive Efforts of Local Landowners

When Mr. Barcott visited with us earlier this year, we provided him with documents that demonstrate the substantial, impressive, and obviously overlooked efforts to improve the environment and water management undertaken by local landowners, often in partnership with state and federal agencies. Over 250 individual restoration projects have been completed throughout the Upper Basin in the past 10 years. In the last year alone, local irrigators have voluntarily agreed to participate in an environmental water bank that will provide 60,000 acre-feet of water to meet ESA requirements this year, over 500 irrigators have applied for water conservation projects using Farm Bill funds that we helped secure. And the Bureau of Reclamation, in partnership with Klamath Irrigation District, completed a $14 million state-of-the-art fish screen that will prevent the entrainment of one million endangered suckers every year. Mr. Barcott’s article completely disregards the most obvious dynamic in our local community: irrigators have fended off a very coordinated attack on Klamath Project agriculture, while at the same time striving to do the right things to protect the environment, improve water management, and sustain the local economy.

New Information on Fish Die-Off

Traditional advocates of high mainstem Klamath River flows quickly concluded last fall that the fish die-off was due in large part to Klamath Project operations, despite the fact that the fish died below the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity rivers. David Vogel, a fisheries biologist with 28 years of experience, believes that Klamath River water temperatures are extremely important in this issue because of the adverse impact high water temperatures can have on salmon (such as causing disease outbreaks). The topic is also important because of how water project operations can, or cannot, affect water temperatures in riverine areas important to salmon.

During late summer and early fall of 2002, Vogel conducted a field investigation to assess water temperatures in the main stem Klamath River. Main stem water temperatures were measured hourly just prior to and during the fall-run Chinook salmon migration season. Vogel found that water temperatures in the upper Klamath River downstream of Iron Gate Dam during September 2002 were unsuitable for adult salmon.

This finding was similar to that of previous studies. As expected, a normal seasonal cooling trend at the end of September and early October provided the moderating influence lowering Klamath River temperatures to tolerable levels for salmon.

Vogel also found that large numbers of salmon entered the lower Klamath River earlier than usual and were exposed to two dramatic and uncharacteristic cooling and warming conditions causing disease outbreak from warm water and crowded conditions. Vogel concluded that the combination of these factors was chronically and cumulatively stressful to fish and is probably the most plausible reason for the fish die-off.

According to Vogel, it appears that large numbers of salmon entered the lower Klamath River earlier than usual, were exposed to two dramatic and uncharacteristic cooling and warming conditions that were chronically and cumulatively stressful to fish. At the same time, riverine conditions in the upper Klamath River were unsuitably warm for salmon because the normal seasonal cooling trend had not yet occurred. Vogel’s data indicate that September 2002 was unique, but not for the reasons portrayed by the California Department of Fish and Game in a January 2003 report that places the full blame for the fish die-off on the Klamath Project.

Until additional data is acquired on the topic, Vogel’s opinion is that the combination of those factors is probably the most plausible reason for the fish die-off.

Closing Comments

In closing, I can’t resist again bringing up Mr. Barcott’s reference to the "Everglades of the West". Locals are mystified about the comparison with the Everglades, a subtropical area that receives consistent and substantial year-long precipitation. However, environmental activists- the most vocal critics of our family farm operations – love to throw out this name. In our view, the only common thread tying the Klamath Basin to the Everglades is that in both areas, residents are up to their asses in alligators.



Dan Keppen

Executive Director

Klamath Water Users Association

cc: Bruce Barcott

Stephen Baxter


Klamath Water Users Association
2455 Patterson Street, Suite 3
Klamath Falls, Oregon 97603
(541)-883-6100 FAX (541)-883-8893 kwua@cdsnet.net


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