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THE COASTAL FISHERY CRISIS - Stop finger-pointing on the Klamath Basin


(This article is in response to, and followed by, the Oregonian editorial blaming dams and Klamath irrigators)

George Gibbs, traveling through Northern California in 1851, was struck by conditions at the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity rivers.

The Trinity, wrote Gibbs, "is in size about half that of the Klamath, and its waters, likewise rapid, are of transcendent purity; contrasting with those of the latter stream which never lost the taint of their origin."

The origin of the Klamath River is warm, shallow Upper Klamath Lake, which feeds the federal Klamath Irrigation Project. More than 150 years after Gibbs' visit, the Klamath River and the irrigation project are now in the sights of the national media and environmental activists. Every week, we read claims that the river and the coastal salmon fishery are being destroyed by the project, a convenient source of blame for all that is apparently tainted in the Klamath ecosystem.

What we don't see in the papers is the fact that, over the past four years, between 40,000 and 100,000 acre-feet of water originally developed for agriculture has instead been bought by the federal government and dedicated annually to an environmental water bank to "protect" fish. In 2005, nearly 30 percent of the water traditionally used in an average water year by the Klamath Project and wildlife refuges was reallocated in this manner.

Further, even though the Klamath Project is one of the most water-use efficient reclamation operations in the country, more than 800 growers have applied for 2002 Farm Bill funding to implement cost-share projects that conserve water.

These actions are laudable. However, one has to remember that there is only so much water that can be squeezed from an area that is just 2 percent of the watershed and uses only 3 percent to 4 percent of Klamath River flows in an average year.

Despite these efforts, irrigators are now being blamed in the media by environmental activists for a looming crisis on the coast. This spring, commercial salmon fishing has been closed along 700 miles of Pacific shoreline, which federal regulators believe will prevent "take" of Klamath River salmon. This very complicated issue is deftly and simply portrayed by faraway activists as " fishermen vs. farmers."

Once again, they've got it wrong.

Recently, a group of irrigator representatives traveled to Coos Bay and met with more than 50 coastal fishermen and political leaders. It was somewhat of a revelation that not a single fisherman at the meeting pointed to the Klamath Project as the cause for the fishery closure. Instead, they offered up other explanations, including:

         Insufficient hatchery production and failure to count hatchery fish.

         Disjointed stock management by state and federal agencies.

         Sea lion predation.

         Unfavorable ocean conditions and several years of drought.

The meeting ended in mutual pledges by the irrigators and the fishermen to work together. As a first step, the Klamath Relief Fund -- created to assist distressed farmers in 2001 -- has been re-activated by the Klamath farming community. This time, the money raised will be used to help fishermen and their families.

We're tired of the Klamath finger-pointing. Instead, we want to extend a helping hand.

Greg Addington is executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. Dan Keppen is former executive director of the association and is now executive director of the Family Farm Alliance. They both live near Klamath Falls. You can donate to the Klamath Relief Fund for Commercial Fishermen at P.O. Box 5252, Klamath Falls, OR 97601.

The above article is in response to the following Oregonian editorial:

The real disaster is the Klamath River

Congressional aid to West Coast salmon fishermen must include money to restore the warm, polluted river
May 07, 2006

Yes, by all means, Congress must rush tens of millions of dollars in disaster aid to salmon fishermen facing the largest and most costly fishing closure in West Coast history.

But it must not stop there. Because if Congress and the Bush administration do nothing about the source of the crisis, the shallow and sick Klamath River, this is a disaster waiting to happen again and again and again.

The Klamath River is the source of the entire economic and social disaster that now stretches hundreds of miles along the Oregon and California coasts. Commercial fishermen will have only a token season up and down the coast this summer because there is no other way to preserve the once mighty Klamath chinook run that has collapsed under the abuse heaped on the river.

The time has come to restore the Klamath. The river's problems are obvious: too much water diverted for irrigation and other uses, too many dams blocking salmon from spawning habitat, too much fish-killing bacteria and algae.

Yet there is a real chance that Congress will do nothing this session but cobble together an aid package for commercial fishermen, and call it good. Oregon's congressional delegation has introduced bills in both the House and Senate to provide $81 million in disaster relief to commercial fishermen and fishing communities, and $45 million to restore the Klamath and improve salmon runs. That's the right approach.

However, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., also are co-sponsoring a stripped-down bill that would provide the $81 million for disaster relief and nothing for restoring the Klamath or its salmon run. One argument we keep hearing is that a "clean" assistance bill won't get bogged down in a debate over restoration issues, and Congress can return to the Klamath in later legislation.

Well, maybe. But a serious debate over Klamath restoration is exactly what's needed here. Otherwise, you know where this is headed: Congress sends a pile of one-time money to fishermen, then shies away -- again -- from the hard choices in the Klamath Basin, and it's business as usual until the next disaster strikes and we do all this again.

Why not begin fixing the river? Why not start now? There's a lot of water this year, thanks to the wet winter. There is a compelling economic case, given the crisis up and down the coast. The four major fish-killing dams on the river are up for relicensing. Some Klamath irrigators even have traveled to the coast to talk with commercial fishermen about their shared interest in Klamath water.

The Klamath can be restored. For inspiration and ideas, look at the nearby Sacramento River. In the 1990s, the winter chinook run on the Sacramento was down to fewer than 200 adult fish. Then state and federal governments, irrigators, environmental groups and others agreed on plans to remove obsolete dams, screen water diversions and reduce irrigation use and pollution. It cost more than $200 million, but today thousands of winter chinook are coming back to the Sacramento, and biologists are reporting a three-fold increase in mature adults every year.

The same steps are needed on the Klamath. Buyouts of willing sellers of irrigation rights would reduce water demand in the upper basin and leave more cold, clean water for instream flows. The four dams, which together produce only about $27 million in electricity annually, should be breached or required to provide safe fish passage. The feds should demand steps to reduce the bacteria and algae in the river.

Yes, all this will require money and hard decisions. But it makes no sense to leave the Klamath the way it is, slowly killing off salmon, year after year after year, while Congress sends millions of dollars of aid to West Coast fishermen. That policy is a proven disaster.






Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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