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Klamath Basin symposium delegates call for more information -- and dialogue

By John Driscoll The Times-Standard

ARCATA -- The need for more science was the focus of a symposium on the Klamath River.

But the need for conversation among disparate factions was deemed just as critical.

A better understanding of how water flows influence salmon, the role of fish hatcheries, and how salmon diseases crop up in the lower Klamath were all deemed important to understanding the complex ecosystem.

The Lower Klamath Basin Science Conference brought together more than 100 scientists, regulators, tribes representatives and farmers -- all trying to identify gaps in knowledge. They met at Humboldt State University's John Van Duzer Theater.

In the past few years, the Klamath River has been in the spotlight. In 2001, farmers on the central Oregon-California border had much of their irrigation water cut off to save water for endangered salmon and suckers. The next year, the farms got full deliveries, and 34,000 salmon died in the lower river.

"In many cases, the water used for one can't be used for the other," said William Bettenberg of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

He spoke in place of Sue Ellen Wooldridge, who was recently named solicitor of the department, and was reportedly unable to attend.

Biologists are now watching an outbreak of disease among young salmon, and are questioning exactly why the ailment is prevalent in the middle Klamath, said John Engbring, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. What role its intermediate host, a worm, plays is unknown.

That's like not knowing that mosquitos are a vector for malaria, he said.

Better water-year forecasting, the impact groundwater pumping has on surface water and the importance of the numerous other species in the river were identified as important arenas to make headway.

While most agree more science is needed, competing science is also a problem.

Ron Reed of the Karuk Tribe said that scientists are often at odds over conclusions, a result of politics driving science. He said the tribe knows the system's former greatness, and how it has changed.

It's unfair for farmers in the government's Klamath irrigation project to be fingered for the river's ills, Reed said, but it's equally unfair to ignore the effects on American Indians who depend on the river for subsistence and economic vitality.

Yurok Tribe lead biologist Dave Hillemeier said there is never movement toward improving the river unless a species falls under federal protection.

"To us that's just incomprehensible," Hillemeier said.

He said a long-delayed flow study by Thomas Hardy has to be completed, and the historic flows of the river need to be better understood.

Dueling science won't solve the river's problems, especially as scientists are recruited by opposing groups to battle in court, said Dan Keppen of the Klamath Water Users Association.

He suggested considering an approach taken by warring interests on the Sacramento River delta.

Called CalFed, it's a joint California and federal program meant to iron out water disputes and end legal challenges. While it's been roundly criticized by some, many see the program as offering something better than the previous battleground atmosphere.

Keppen said he's tired of the perception that the Klamath is a poster child for all that is wrong with water in the West, and touted farmers' strides toward conservation.

Tim McKay of the Northcoast Environmental Center said he supports an ecosystem-level management approach on the river, but added that environmental groups will go to court if science is politicized.

"Politicians would much rather have courts make tough decisions rather than make tough decisions themselves," McKay said.

Humboldt County 5th District Supervisor Jill Geist said the continuing disconnect between the upper and lower Klamath Basin has to end. All sides need to get together to push for creative changes, she said.

The conference continues today, Wednesday and Thursday.





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

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