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 Klamath water still hot topic

Five years later, basin remains a sore spot for fishers, farmers

By Dylan Darling, Record Searchlight
April 6, 2006

The rusty old hand-crank head gates at the start of the Klamath Reclamation Project are long gone, replaced by a state-of-the-art, $16 million concrete and steel behemoth that keeps endangered sucker fish out of the canals that bring irrigation water to farms in the Klamath Basin.

But five years after the federal government's decision not to open the old gates at the start of the 2001 irrigation season to save the water for protected suckers and salmon, contentious water issues remain. Despite five years of talk and change, parties on opposing sides of the Klamath water issue agree that 2001 could happen again.

"Since 2001, we have been able to irrigate, but the problem is still there," said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents 1,400 farmers in the basin. "I still think there is kind of a black cloud hanging over here."

Although a wet winter may be giving the upper basin a pass from controversy, a tempest is brewing on the lower Klamath River, which drains the basin's water into the Pacific Ocean. Low native chinook salmon counts could cause a federal fishery management council to close commercial and recreational salmon fishing in federal waters off 700 miles of California and Oregon coast.

Like the farmers' growing season in 2001, the anglers' salmon season hangs on the decision of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which is expected late today or Friday.

"Frankly, we know what it feels like," Addington said.

On April 6, 2001, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that no water would be flowing through the Klamath Project's canals from Upper Klamath Lake, its main reservoir. The 2001 water shutoff drew national media attention as the farmers and their supporters camped out at the head gates, at one point breaking them open. Since then, the word Klamath has become synonymous with water controversy, with Interior Secretary Gale Norton saying the federal government doesn't want another Klamath.

Some things have changed in the basin since 2001. In a major shift, stakeholders now sit down at negotiation tables instead of waging legal battles, said Dave Sabo, Klamath Project manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.

"People recognize what happened in 2001 was a landmark issue, it changed how a lot of things were done in the Klamath basin," he said.

To quell controversy in the basin, which straddles the California-Oregon border about two-and-a-half hours northeast of Redding, the federal government has poured money into it since 2001. The new head gates, finished in 2003, are just the start. President's Bush 2005 budget alone called for more than $100 million for habitat restoration, water improvement projects and other programs in the basin.

Since 2002, $17 million has gone to pay farmers to switch from project water to groundwater, pump their groundwater into project canals or let their fields go fallow during growing season, from April to mid-October. The decrease in demand by the irrigators leaves more water for the salmon.

This year, the bureau has contracts worth $7.3 million with farmers to change water use for more than 40,000 acres. Of that, $1.4 million will be spent to keep 15,250 acres dry.

This year, five years and millions of dollars after the Klamath crisis, the biggest difference from 2001 is something federal money can't buy -- there's been a change in the weather. While 2001 was dry and fields were parched, 2006 has been wet and fields are muddy -- so muddy that farmers have delayed planting onions, potatoes and other basin staples.

Although farming should make it through another summer in the basin, things still are in a fragile state.

"If we had another year where the hydrology was the same, we'd have a real challenge there," said Jeff McCracken, bureau spokesman. "It's a matter of high demand for fishery purposes and little water for anything else."

Reporter Dylan Darling can be reached at 225-8266 or at ddarling@redding.com.





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