Klamath conservation plan talks shouldn't include Westlands

 My Word By Jill Geist Times-Standard

Prior to last November's elections, Gale Norton of the U.S. Department of Interior announced a new agreement for "cooperation and collaboration," for ways to improve water delivery in the Klamath River watershed. This agreement among California, Oregon and federal government representatives is to "recover threatened and endangered fish, enhance anadromous fish runs, improve wildlife habitat and water quality, and provide water for irrigation and other beneficial uses."

Given the importance of water diversions between fish and agriculture, this is a noble aspiration. The agreement created a Conservation Implementation Program (CIP) to gather stakeholder ideas from throughout the Klamath River Basin. Watershed issues are a political priority for President Bush because fish and farmers are competing for the waters of the Klamath River. This issue is difficult because water is imperative to both agriculture in the upper basin, and fish in the lower basin.


As a Humboldt County official, I will participate in any effort to protect Klamath and Trinity waters and fish. I want the CIP process to come up with solutions that maintain water for the Klamath and Trinity river basins and their fisheries, and I believe the CIP must deliberate cautiously and fairly towards developing solutions that will allow fish and farmers to survive. This latest federal/state agreement has promise but it could be doomed to discord if local stakeholders allow outside political interests to participate and dictate our water future.

That said, I am greatly concerned about the sudden emergence of Westlands Water District as a primary player in the upper Klamath basin. Since 1964, Westlands has agriculturally and financially benefited from Trinity River water diversions into the Central Valley Project. When Congress finally voted to help the river, Westlands litigated to stop the restoration of the Trinity River. This summer the U.S. 9th Circuit Court ruled in favor of the Hoopas' restoration plan. Now that Westlands has failed in court, Westlands may use the CIP process as the back door to raid the Klamath and Trinity river basins.

Westlands is the largest and most aggressive irrigation district in the world. The 600,000 acres it irrigates is heavily dependent on federal subsidies and import of water. Any water formulas offered by Westlands for the Klamath River Basin will be suspect because of the seemingly unquenchable thirst of Westlands for Northern California's water. Westlands also carries environmental baggage. In 1983 the selenium contamination from the Westlands' agricultural runoff resulted in the Department of Interior ordering the drainage flows stopped. That action ultimately ended with the retirement of 33,000 acres of Westlands farmland and a $140 million bill to the U.S. taxpayer.

I am not sure these are the kinds of problems and solutions we want when deliberating about how to fix problems in the Klamath and Trinity river basins.

I look forward to working with agricultural, tribal and fishing interests to develop viable solutions that will find that balance between fish and farmers. However, I do not think this can be done with Westlands at the table. If Westlands guides the direction of these water policy recommendations, it is doubtful Northern California interests can retain an open mind. Westlands should go home and clean up its own problems while we find ways for fish and farmers to survive in Northern California.

Jill Geist is 5th District supervisor for Humboldt County.