With a notable absence of celebration,
federal water officials cranked open the canal gates Tuesday to begin
sending irrigation water to farmers in the Klamath Basin.
They might as well have been opening
another season of discontent.
Federal officials are walking a fine
line between delivering to the farmers and avoiding another huge fish
die-off like last year's.
A coalition of environmentalists,
fishermen and Native Americans has warned that fish will again be at
risk if farmers get full irrigation deliveries when the basin's water
supply stands at little more than half of normal.
A federal court hearing is set for
April 29 in Oakland to decide if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which
manages Klamath flows, should stay on its current course or give more
water to the fish.
Since 2001, when the government
slashed farmers' supply of irrigation water to ensure the survival of
threatened salmon and sucker fish, this rich farm belt on the
California-Oregon border has been a flashpoint in an ideological fight
over the federal Endangered Species Act.
Last year, Interior Secretary Gale
Norton and other top Bush administration officials ceremoniously opened
the gates with promises that farmers wouldn't be hit again with a water
cutoff. But a public relations nightmare followed later in the year, as
33,000 salmon in the Klamath River succumbed to disease in low river
Farmers once again expect a full
allotment, despite a dry winter in the basin that has left the snow pack
critically depleted. But water managers with the Bureau of Reclamation
have also set in motion several actions to help the fish.
The bureau is urging a federal judge
to give them flexibility to release more water into the Trinity River, a
Northern California tributary that links with the Klamath River about 40
miles from the sea. For years, as much as 90% of the Trinity's flow has
been drained for delivery to Central Valley farms, but federal officials
hope they can send more water down the river if it's needed to improve
conditions for fish in the Klamath's lower reaches.
Upriver, federal officials also took
steps this year to reduce water use with a new program that temporarily
retires farm acreage. Called a "water bank," the effort will pay farmers
$4 million in exchange for fallowing 16,000 acres in the basin,
where more than 200,000 acres are typically planted.
Along with increased pumping of
groundwater, federal officials expect to have in reserve more than
60,000 acre-feet of water -- about 15% of the basin's normal use -- to
help two species of endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and the
threatened coho salmon in the river.
Finally, a U.S. agricultural program
is providing $7 million to the basin for new water conservation efforts,
such as removing stands of juniper trees that suck up groundwater and
converting farms to more efficient sprinkler irrigation.
"We're trying to be part of the
solution," said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water
Users Assn. "But we're continually plagued by these outside interests
lobbing grenades and trying to manufacture an artificial crisis."
Foes do abound. Environmentalists,
Native American tribes and fishermen say the water bank and other
efforts are steps in the right direction but not nearly enough. They
contend that federal water managers are setting the stage for another
"They have focused on preserving the
status quo," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of
Fishermen's Assns. "Last year, the status quo killed 33,000 salmon."
In the meantime, environmentalists
cautioned federal officials to avoid sending too much water to
irrigators until the court case is decided, saying it would be wiser to
slowly mete out the irrigation supply.
Reclamation officials say they will
simply follow their water plan, until the courts tell them otherwise.
And in reality, they say, farmers won't need to pull much water from the
basin's intricate system of canals before the April 29 court hearing.
Recent rains have soaked the ground enough to cut early irrigation
needs, said Jeff McCracken, a Bureau of Reclamation spokesman.
Underlying the early jousting in this
year's battle are more fundamental differences of opinion.
Environmentalists continue to push for
buying out farmland and putting it permanently out of production so more
water goes to the fish. While a water bank makes sense as a temporary
solution, "it won't work over the long haul," said Bob Hunter of
WaterWatch of Oregon. Only by retiring farmland can demand be brought
"back into balance with what nature can provide," he said.
Though some farmers have embraced the
idea of buyouts, most irrigators in the Klamath Basin have resisted.
They contend that a huge land retirement program would undercut the
basin's economy, putting tractor dealers, seed sellers and other
farm-related firms out of business.