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Potato Festival Queen Bailey Johnson, center, and her court wave to the crowd during the Oct. 21 Potato Festival parade in Merrill, Ore.
Spud festival brings water talk

Coastal fishermen, Klamath irrigators work together for solution to water issue

Steve Kadel, Capital Press 10/27/06

MERRILL, Ore. - Oregon coast commercial fishermen and Klamath Basin irrigators have at least one common goal - greater water storage in the upper Klamath Basin.

That was the unanimous sentiment Oct. 21, when representatives from both industries met in Merrill during the final day of the annual Klamath Basin Potato Festival.

"We need additional storage of good, cold water," Gold Beach fisherman Scott Boley said. "That would allow better flexibility for everyone."

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., was among those at the table. He agreed that storage is a critical issue, saying a study of Long Lake as a possible holding site must accelerate. The lake, located in a valley west of Klamath Falls, would provide off-stream storage of winter runoff.

State Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, added that climate change is forcing the issue.

"Eastern Oregon uses snowpack as a reservoir," he said. "That snow is melting earlier and earlier. We definitely need better water storage."

"It needs to really be looked at," said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. "Maybe we could get more momentum for that."

He said the role of fish hatcheries also must be scrutinized.

"What is their role?" Addington asked. "Are they working or are they not?"

A shortage of returning natural fall chinook salmon on the Klamath River all but canceled the commercial fishing season this year. The ocean closure drew farmers and fishermen together to present a united front for congressional help.

One of the problems, according to several who spoke at the meeting, are biological opinions from federal agencies that mandate Klamath River flow levels and set minimum levels for Upper Klamath Lake, the largest reservoir in the federal Klamath Reclamation Project.

Three fish, Klamath River coho salmon and two sucker fish native to upper basin lakes and rivers, are under protection of the Endangered Species Act.

"Our biological opinions are such that on a certain date you need a certain amount of water," said Dick Carleton, a Merrill farmer.

Instead, the needs of irrigators and fishermen should dictate flow levels, he said. Federal agencies are under court order to renegotiate the coho biological opinion.

Walden said sea lion predation of salmon is part of the problem. He pledged to seek legislation allowing some sort of action against sea lions. They enjoy federal protection against killing and harassment under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"We stand with our hands tied behind our back while the sea lions have a feast" at the mouth of the Klamath River, Walden said.

He believes there is a window of opportunity to get help in solving water issues throughout the Klamath Basin. That's because the Bush administration understands the complex issue, Walden said, but the next administration - whether Republican or Democrat - would need time to get up to speed.

Walden likened this year's curtailment of the commercial salmon fishing season to the 2001 water shutoff for Klamath Project irrigators. Those two industries have come together this year in a series of cooperative meetings to find common ground.

"When it comes to decision-making we really haven't had a voice," Carleton said. "We hope to change that."

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