As a congressional committee readies itself to once again grill government officials and activists next week on the events in the Klamath Basin in 2001, I have a question for those who called the hearing: “Why now?”
Remember that 2001 was a drought year in the Klamath Basin. Combined with draft single-year biological opinions calling simultaneously for high water levels in the Upper Klamath Lake (for the sucker fish) and increased downstream flow (for the coho salmon), the atmosphere was ripe for conflict.
Sure enough, a district court judge ruled that the odd man out would be the farmers in the Basin who depended on i r r igation water from the lake for their livelihood. The water was turned off for the first time since World War I veterans began farming the basin nearly a century ago. In 2002, a major salmon die-off occurred at the mouth of the Klamath River, prompting some to question whether delivery of irrigation water to the basin was responsible for the kill.
However, in 2003, the globally-renowned and nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences (NAS) thoroughly reviewed the government’s actions and issued a peerreviewed report stating that “there is no basis in evidence for optimism that manipulation of water levels has the potential to moderate mass mortality of suckers in Upper Klamath Lake,” and “the most important cause of impairment of coho salmon probably is excessively high summer temperatures in tributary waters.” The agencies “accepted a high risk of error,” according to the NAS report, and indeed got it wrong.
That’s all (relatively) old news. What many may not realize is that the current Administration has invested well over $500 million in the 10-million acre Klamath watershed since that time for habitat restoration, water quality improvement and water conservation. Stateof-the-art fish screens have been installed, and actions to remove the sucker-blocking Chiloquin Dam are taking place.
What also might have f lown entirely under the radar is an Inspector General investigation requested by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., that dismissed charges of political influence from the White House of the science used in the NAS report.
“None of the individuals we interviewed – including the Whistleblower – was able to provide any competent evidence that the Department (of the Interior) utilized suspect scientific data or suppressed information that was contained in economic and scientific reports related to the Klamath Project,” wrote Inspector General Earl Devaney to Senator Kerry. “[W]e found no evidence of political influence affecting the decisions pertaining to the water in the Klamath Project. … The consistent denial of political influence by government officials was corroborated by the view of the outside scientists and one former DOI official, all of whom denied feeling any pressure – political or otherwise.”
T he mo st sig n i f ic a nt development of the last few years is the historic formation of the 26-organization Klamath Settlement Group, which is comprised of c omp et i n g i nt er e s t s including Indian tr ibes, farmers, and conservation groups. The group is just months away from a selfimposed November date to reach an agreement.
“For the past two years this group has persevered towards the development of a proposal to restore the Klamath River fisheries, meet agricultural needs, protect water quality and sustain the ecolog y and economies of the Klamath Basin,” states a release from the group. “Development of the framework of a settlement has been demanding, but the group remains determined to prepare and present a balanced agreement.”
F r om t he set t lement group’s own words one can tell how delicate and difficult their negotiations must be. Yet their work is of paramount importance; they are the best hope we have of avoiding a resolution by way of litigation. Only they can produce a long-term and locally-driven resolution for competing constituencies to endorse.
Next week’s hearing will contribute zero substance to their work. If anything, it risks renewing old rivalries and heightening tensions among stakeholders. Anyone who is serious about a comprehensive resolution for the Klamath Basin would not have called this hearing, especially at this time.
Greg Walden, Republican, is a U.S. representative for Oregon’s Second District.