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Build water answers from the ground up

Klamath Falls Herald and News Editorial July 19, 2006

Fisherman and farmers have a lot in common. They both use natural resources and, generally, in a responsible manner. In the case of the Klamath River, they both rely on a resource that's limited and been overcommitted for decades.

Fishermen and farmers depending on the Klamath River have often been in conflict. Thus, recent signs that they're working together are more than welcome. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., is trying to get a Cabinet-level response to problems on the Klamath River, which attracted Cabinet interest during the 2001 irrigation water cutoff on the Klamath Reclamation Project.

Recently, there have been visits exchanged between Basin farmers and fishermen, from which both sides seem to have gotten a better feel for each other's problems and limitations. Tribes and farmers have also had such visits. Such things should continue, as should energetic efforts among interested parties to create solutions.

Water allocations from the Klamath River are set by three federal agencies - the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. While the Bureau of Reclamation is technically in charge of setting the limits, it has to meet the legal requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act, which gives a lot of power to the other two agencies.

Water was cut off to most Klamath Project farmers in 2001 to use more water for endangered fish species, and in 2002, there was a large die-off of salmon on the lower Klamath River. Those two events are deeply entwined in the river's recent history.

Much of the blame for the 2002 die-off was unfairly directed at the Basin Project farmers and the water they used. The science, though, didn't support that contention, nor did it support cutting off water to the Project in 2001.

At the same time, fishermen had seen the salmon production on the Klamath River dwindle, capped this year by the shutdown of salmon fishing off the Oregon Coast in order to protect the Klamath River salmon. Just as Basin farmers did in 2001, fishermen are looking at the loss of their livelihood.

That's one of the things they have in common.

There are other stakeholders who need to be involved. Tribes at both ends of the river have rights that must be part of the solution. Federal agencies have to be part of it as well. So do various interest groups, such as the Klamath Water Users Association.

They'd do well, though, to avoid including the Oregon Natural Resources Council, a private nonprofit advocacy group that has taken an active and litigious interest in the Klamath Basin. The approach Walden and others are taking relies on a collaborative process, which is something that the ONRC has eschewed. It has made plain that it prefers lawsuits to cooperation.

True answers have to reach beyond narrow interests, and recognize each other's legitimate claims. That won't be easy. There's only so much water. But the best answers are going to be those generated from the ground up, not imposed by courts.




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