Urges Large-Scale Approach to Protect Fish in
Panel Urges Large-Scale Approach
to Protect Fish in Klamath Basin
Federal committee recommends a series of actions,
from toppling dams to restoring lakes, to prevent
threatened species from dying out.
By Eric Bailey, Times Staff Writer
SACRAMENTO — A federal science panel on Tuesday
recommended that U.S. wildlife regulators take a far
more sweeping approach to prevent extinction of
threatened fish in the Klamath Basin, a region
racked in recent years by one of the West's most
contentious water wars.
After nearly two years of study, the National
Research Council's scientific committee suggested a
series of aggressive steps ranging from reviving
long-drained lakes and wetlands to better
controlling erosion from logging, restoring
coldwater flows into tributaries, shuttering a
hatchery and toppling dozens of dams.
But the 12-member panel stuck by a controversial
finding it first announced in an interim report last
year: that, based on the scientific evidence,
increased flows in the Klamath River and higher
water levels in Oregon's Upper Klamath Lake are not
justified to protect coho salmon in the river and
the lake's two species of sucker fish.
Controversy swept the fertile agricultural basin
straddling the Oregon-California border in 2001
after federal officials increased water allotments
for fish and slashed irrigation deliveries to
farmers. Environmentalists, Indian tribes and others
have been wrangling ever since with farmers and the
Bush administration, which boosted water deliveries
to agriculture in 2002 but then drew blame for a
fish die-off that claimed 33,000 salmon and
steelhead trout in the Klamath River.
Both sides in the debate welcomed the report's call
for solutions throughout the sprawling Klamath River
watershed, which spreads from the Cascade Mountains
of Oregon south into the dense northern woods of
Bush administration officials reacted with caution,
but said the report justifies many of their actions
and relieves them of blame in the fish kill while
pointing the way for solutions that don't focus on
simply taking water from farmers.
"While it may be a lot harder to take the broader
approach, it is more fair," said Sue Ellen
Wooldridge, the Interior Department's deputy
director. "If it obligates everyone in the basin to
work harder, that's too bad, but that's the
appropriate approach. The easy answers aren't always
the right answers."
Agricultural interests in the Klamath Basin welcomed
the research findings as validation of their
long-held belief that farmers have borne too much
blame for problems with the fish.
"It's great news," said Dan Keppen, Klamath Water
Users Assn. executive director. "It pretty clearly
shows that the focus on us was wrong, that this
needs to be a watershed-wide solution. We see this
as a very positive step."
But environmentalists and others fighting for
protection of the threatened fish say the scientific
panel's conclusions, though in many cases welcome,
represent the sort of slow-developing solutions that
will be tough to finance and could meet stiff
resistance throughout the region. Implementing the
recommended new research and a few small-scale
projects could cost up to $35 million, and major
efforts such as removing dams would add considerably
to the price tag and delays.
"What I think they got wrong is relying on solutions
that are going to take five, 10, 15 years to
implement," said Steve Pedery of Oregon WaterWatch.
"In the meantime, these fish don't have that much
time to waste."
Even so, he and others said they saw plenty to like
in the thick report.
A prime objective is for the federal wildlife
agencies to make a broader push with all of the
parties that have an impact on the basin, not just
focusing on Klamath farmers. Jeffrey F. Mount, a UC
Davis geology professor on the panel, said wildlife
regulators need to use "the array of tools they have
available" through the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
One example: Wildlife agencies could put more
pressure on the U.S. Forest Service to prevent
sediment runoff into streams from logging and road
building, which can smother spawning beds.
The panel also called for better fish studies as
well as monitoring of water quality and other
environmental conditions. Removal of Chiloquin Dam
would open up 90% of the historic spawning habitat
on Upper Klamath Lake.
Conditions on Upper Klamath Lake, meanwhile, have
grown so bleak that recovery of sucker fish there is
at best a long-term prospect, the panel said. Years
of upstream ranching, erosion and naturally
occurring phosphorous on the lake bottom have
created algae blooms that rob oxygen and can cause
periodic die-offs of the endangered Lost River and
Among others, Peter Moyle, a UC Davis biology
professor and panel member, pointed to alternatives
such as reintroducing the fish to a small Oregon
lake where suckers were killed off decades ago to
make room for sport fish. The panel also suggested
that marshy Lower Klamath Lake and the remnants of
Tule Lake in California be at least partially
revived to help boost sucker populations. Mount of
UC Davis said it would mean "some farmland would
go," a controversial step in the basin.
Down river, the panel said that survival of the coho
salmon hinged more on the temperature of river flows
than dramatic boosts in volume. Removal of dams on
the Klamath would restore the cold flow from several
small creeks drowned by reservoirs.
But dam removal is no easy task, and often
controversial. One of the dams has created Lake
Shastina, a popular recreational lake. But it also
blocks nearly a quarter of the historic salmon
spawning grounds and valuable coldwater flows from
the Shasta River.
Likewise, cold flows on other tributaries such as
the Scott, Trinity and Salmon could be boosted by
returning water to the system that is now diverted
by farmers to grow alfalfa and other crops in
The panel conceded that higher river flows in
general could help other species, such as steelhead
trout and chinook salmon, a mainstay of the West
Coast's commercial fishing industry.
The National Research Council committee said that
hatchery fish on the Klamath might be hurting coho,
crowding out their wild cousins. To test that
theory, the panel said the hatcheries could be shut
down for three years, the lifecycle of salmon. "I'll
bet," Moyle said, "you'd see an increase in coho."
As for the 2002 fish kill on the Klamath, the panel
disagreed with arguments from the California Fish
and Game biologists that dwindling river flows and
crowded conditions caused the disaster. The report
said there is not enough scientific evidence to
conclude that flow or high water temperatures caused
the fish kill.
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