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Restoration focus needs to be habitat

Updated: Wednesday, October 22, 2003 1:24 PM PDT

Klamath Falls, Ore. - Voluntary steps to restore habitat, including dam removal, would be a more effective way to save Klamath Basin salmon and suckers than taking water from farmers, a National Research Council panel suggests.

The long-awaited report commissioned by Interior Secretary Gale Norton, released Tuesday, builds on earlier findings that the 2001 shut-off of irrigation water to most of the 250,000-acre Klamath Reclamation project to conserve water for fish was not scientifically justified.

After the water was shut off, federal marshals guarded irrigation headgates from farmers and anti-government protesters trying to open them. The confrontation made the Klamath Basin a focus of national debate over sharing scarce water between growing numbers of people and dwindling numbers of fish.

The report said the greatest threat to coho salmon comes from warm water temperatures in tributaries, such as the Scott and Shasta rivers, not flows in the mainstem Klamath River.  

The quickest way to cool tributary water would be buying or leasing groundwater to turn into the streams. For a long-range solution, the report urged restoring streamside trees and brush destroyed by grazing, logging and road construction.

However, members of the local agricultural movement Save Our Shasta Valleys and Towns (SOSS) argue that millions of dollars in habitat restoration has already taken place on both the Shasta and Scott rivers.

"By the end of this year we will have spent nearly $12 million on fish restoration in the Scott Valley alone," said George Thackery, an active member of SOSS. "This includes riparian planting, fencing, stock water protection, fish screens and much, much more. We've been doing a whole gambit of things and have received good reviews on both state and federal levels."

Among the report's findings was that restoring irrigation water to farmers in 2002, resulting in lower Klamath River flows, was not clearly responsible for the deaths of 33,000 chinook salmon that September.

However, low flows and warm temperatures cause harmful stress on salmon, the report said. If changes to the river channel from flooding in the winter of 1997-1998 are blocking fish passage during low flows, future kills are possible.

Recommendations offered pluses and minuses for farmers, Indian tribes, commercial fishermen and environmentalists who have battled the Bush administration over water allocations under the demands of the Endangered Species Act.

For example, scientists suggested no more gains for endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, the primary reservoir for the Klamath Project, can be won by further limitations on irrigation.

But they also urged creation of a new sucker populations in Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake, in the middle of the Klamath Project, which could require turning thousands of acres of farmland back into marsh and lake.

The report raised the possibility of removing Irongate Dam on the Klamath River to restore salmon spawning in tributaries, but also urged a three-year moratorium on hatchery releases, to see if that would help wild fish rebound. Hatchery fish make up the bulk of the salmon harvested by tribal, commercial and sport fishermen. Irongate Dam is one of a series of hydroelectric projects on the upper Klamath River owned by PacifiCorp and up for relicensing next year.

''We were told not to think about politics and economic issues, but think about what species need for recovery, and that is what we did,'' said William Lewis, a professor of environmental science at the University of Colorado at Boulder and chairman of the National Research Council Committee on Endangered and Threatened Fishes in the Klamath River Basin.

Thackery argued that the economic impact to an area should not be ignored when considering solutions.

"I'm involved in the Siskiyou Resource Conservation District (RCD) and we review conservation methods throughout the county. We always consider is the economic impact," Thackery said.

The report estimated the cost of following its recommendations for restoring suckers and salmon would be $25 million to $35 million over five years.

The scientists praised the Bush administration's creation of a water bank to provide more water for fish by paying farmers not to irrigate and suggested similar voluntary programs work better and faster than the legal hammer of the Endangered Species Act.

Congressman Wally Herger said that he has yet to review the study in its entirety, but it appears to be the product of a "thoughtful and thorough review of the issues facing the 2001 water shut-off" in the Klamath Basin.

"The report is further vindication of agriculture in the basin, confirming what we've said all along - that demands for additional water from our farmers lack any scientific basis," Herger said. "It is compelling evidence that attacks on the Klamath Basin in Congress, in the courts and in the public arena, have been about advancing a radical political agenda, not about doing what's right for the environment."

Although Herger said he was pleased with the NRC's position, he also cautioned that the report needs to be carefully scrutinized.

"It's important that our primary focus continues to be preserving agriculture and the way of life in the Klamath Basin and elsewhere in Northern California," he said.

Voluntary efforts fit well with the Bush administration's approach, said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, deputy chief of staff and counselor to the secretary of Interior.

''We all - all the stakeholders - need to look at this thing very carefully to see if there are things in there we can take from it and help us to target our resources,'' she said.

The greatest threat to endangered Lost River suckers and shortnosed suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, the Klamath Project's primary reservoir, is algae blooms fed by agricultural runoff, the report said. When the algae dies, it uses up oxygen in the water, killing fish.

The panel also suggested removing Chiloquin Dam on the Sprague River to restore sucker access to spawning areas and experimentally injecting oxygen into Upper Klamath Lake to give fish a refuge when algae blooms crash.

Farmers were encouraged by the report, said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

''The challenge will be to get people together to implement these things,'' he said. ''We're sitting down and starting to talk to the tribes, upstream irrigators and fishermen. I think this report will act as a catalyst and start bringing more people together.''

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