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Basin water situation continues to show positive developments

Herald and News 11/5/06

   It would be nice to think that the restoration effort in the upper Klamath Basin had something to do with the big increase in young fish from endangered and threatened species showing up in Upper Klamath Lake this year.
   Biologists don’t know if that’s true, and the increase may be nothing more than the vagaries of the weather.
   Still, the dramatic increase in the number of juvenile and larval suckers is good news.
   Federal agencies began counting the young shortnose and Lost River suckers 12 years ago, and this August’s production was the highest ever. During the count, 4,000 juvenile suckers an hour were recorded this year compared to about 50 last year.
   Fish counts are important because they help determine the status of the suckers, which are under protection of the Endangered Species Act. That protection helps determine the amount of water that has to be held in Upper Klamath Lake for the suckers, which also affects the amount of water for irrigation and for endangered salmon in the lower Klamath River.
   It’s a complex relationship, and the only time things aren’t hard to figure out is when there’s lots of water. Usually, there isn’t.
   Fish biologists say factors other than the restoration projects have to be considered for August’s high sucker count, including a wet winter and spring, a cool August and not as many fathead minnows in the lake. The minnows, which began showing up in the Basin in the 1970s, prey on young suckers.
   Curt Mullis, project leader at the Klamath Falls U.S. Fish and Wildlife office, said the wet winter looks like it may have had the biggest impact and that biologists will be “looking for that clue that will tell us where we should go to find the keystone actions.”
   He also warned against making too much of this year’s sucker production since it takes five to 10 years for suckers to begin reproducing.
   “We’re not getting overconfident,” he said. Nor should anyone else.
   But it is something positive, and it comes on top of other positive developments.
   One was construction of fish screens at the A Canal opening at the Link River, where the juvenile suckers were counted last summer. The fish screens were built in 2003 and 2004 at a cost of $16 million to prevent suckers from going up the canal, which is the primary irrigation conduit for the Klamath Reclamation Project. Once in the irrigation system, the fish had no way back and died. That loss had been a sore spot between irrigators and the Klamath Tribes, for whom suckers hold cultural and religious significance. The fish, which can reach a length of 3 feet, were also used by the tribes as food.

Removing dam a good step    

Other developments were the restoration projects on the Sprague River — even if their impact can’t be ascertained yet — and the decision to remove the Chiloquin Dam on the Sprague River, which will open more spawning area to the suckers. The dam was built in 1914 to divert water for the Modoc Point Irrigation District and will be replaced with a pump. That was another sore spot dealt with.

   In addition, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have agreed to hold a “summit” on the Klamath River. The Klamath starts in Oregon and flows into northern California to enter the Pacific Ocean. The date and place for the summit haven’t been set yet.
   There’s also been a general improvement in understanding among the various parties involved in the Basin’s complicated water matters.
   As for the latest news — the August fish counts — it remains to be seen how significant it will be. Wildlife populations are subject to radical ups and downs. But that it comes as a part of a string of favorable developments, rather than as an isolated “blip,” is cause for cautious optimism.
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