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Sucker fish are getting back their old home

Klamath - Levees will be blasted to flood a historical wetland and restore the endangered fish's habitat
October 29, 2007 Fail Kinsey Hill, the Oregonian

Explosives engineers will blow up portions of 50-year-old levees above Upper Klamath Lake on Tuesday, hammering a swift river into a slow marshland for the benefit of a fish whose survival in part once halted irrigation to downstream farms.

The federally protected sucker depends on such wetlands, and the action represents a replumbing of a key section of the embattled federal water project in the agriculture-intense Klamath Basin.

"It's a large, complicated project with extremely high expectations," said Curt Mullis, field supervisor with the Klamath Falls office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We're hopeful and optimistic."

The tightly timed series of explosions are scheduled to go off Tuesday under heavy security. The nitrogen-based pipe bombs -- 2,900 of them embedded 12 feet deep -- are supposed to open up huge holes in the massive dirt berms. Water will then pour in, flooding 2,500 acres of the Williamson River Delta Preserve.

The levees were built in the 1950s to convert rich bottomland soils into farmland and to channel the Williamson River directly into the Upper Klamath Lake. For half a century, farmers grew crops such as wheat, barley and alfalfa on great swaths of the drained land.

In its natural, pre-levee state, the Williamson River meandered haphazard and wide toward Klamath Lake, creating a huge marshland. Newly hatched Lost River and shortnose suckers used the soggy terrain to rest and feed as they made their way from upriver spawning beds to the lake.

The levees turned the Williamson into a faster -- and more lethal -- ride.

"They created a canal that effectively shoves the fish into the lake without the benefit of the wetlands," said Mark Stern, The Nature Conservancy's conservation director for the Klamath Basin.

In 1988 the Lost River and shortnose sucker were declared endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Scientists determined that the drained marshlands were a primary reason for the suckers' decline.

The levees' destruction will come after 12 years of negotiations between interests that often have been at odds, including The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Klamath Tribes and the electric utility PacifiCorp, which operates dams on the Klamath River.

The Nature Conservancy took the lead in the Williamson River project, using $5 million donated by PacifiCorp and the Natural Resources Conservation Service -- an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- to buy the delta farmland.

In the mid-1990s, then-Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., also helped secure an appropriation of $5.5 million for site restoration and management.

Stern said the project evolved relatively conflict-free. The various interest groups understand that the delta's restoration is key to the suckers' recovery, "and that resonates with everybody," he said.

The farmers on the lake's southern edge, in Oregon and Northern California, remain wary. They're not directly involved in the project, but anything affecting the Klamath Basin's water affects them.

The sometimes bitter fights over water peaked in 2001, when a severe drought and fish protections, including those for coho, prompted the federal government to shut off irrigation for farmers. Angry farmers occupied canal head gates and briefly pried them open, gaining national attention.

Debate over how to deal with yearly water allocations continues.

"This summer was agonizing," said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. "Conditions were dry; it was touch-and-go."

That's one reason Addington hopes Tuesday's detonation succeeds in helping the suckers.

"We're basically supportive," he said. "From a water standpoint, it's in our best interests to want healthy populations of sucker fish."

Agency officials admit other thorny issues remain, including development of an adequate recovery plan for the coho.

"We're not making grand claims about solving all the problems," said Mullis. But the delta project "definitely has some positives."

Gail Kinsey Hill: 503-221-8590, gailhill@news.oregonian.com For environment news, go to http://blog.oregonlive.com/pdxgreen


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