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Water turns to bad blood

The Klamath basin's problems stir up animosities rather than solutions.

Followed by KBC response.

By David Whitney -- Bee Washington Bureau
Published 2:15 am PDT Tuesday, July 6, 2004

WASHINGTON - The Klamath River flows for 250 miles from Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon to the Pacific Ocean, south of Crescent City on California's North Coast. All along its route, people and wildlife are in trouble because there is too little water.

In 2001, protests erupted over a water cutoff for Klamath basin farmers to help endangered sucker fish, long a staple of the upland Klamath Indians. A year later, more than 30,000 salmon died and rotted just upriver from the Klamath's mouth because the flow was too little and the water too warm.

The scarcity pits angry farmer against angry fisherman, upper river against lower river, congressman against congressman - a problem so complex and intractable that it just seems easier to fight about it than to work for a solution.

"There is so much bad blood between these groups that even getting them to the table is next to impossible," said Bill Gaines, a lobbyist for the California Waterfowl Association, which is concerned about habitat for the millions of migrating ducks and geese that also depend on the basin's precious water.

Increasingly, farmers and fishermen talk about how the politicians are so busy fighting that the opportunity for consensus is being squandered while more fish die and more farmers and fishermen see their livelihoods evaporate.

"We are all trying to use this water to make a dollar, whether it's commercial fishermen, rafters or the guy trying to grow a crop on the ground," said Blair Hart, a farmer who for 17 years has been a board member of the Shasta River Resource Conservation District.

"This is not a Democrat versus Republican issue," Hart said. "They all need to put their political differences aside and craft a solution so that those of us on the ground here ... can get on with the rest of our lives."

The message may be taking hold in Washington.

The four congressmen who represent the Klamath River and basin - Democrat Mike Thompson of St. Helena and Republicans Wally Herger of Marysville, John Doolittle of Roseville and Greg Walden of Oregon - said in recent interviews that the search for consensus may be possible.

It won't be easy.

It will have to begin with finding common ground, starting with the easiest pieces of the puzzle in an effort to rebuild trust, they said. And it will take putting aside political differences.

"The only issue that anyone should be concerned with is how to resolve the vexing problem that there's too much demand for too little water," Thompson said. "If everyone were willing to work together on that, we could make some real progress. But there's unfortunately been politics getting in the way of problem-solving. And whenever you have that, it's a recipe for disaster."

Walden pointed to slow but steady progress, much of it under the radar screen of the larger war.

He said a huge fish screen has gone in to stop millions of small suckerfish from being washed onto farmland to die. Consensus is coming together on removing Chiloquin Dam to give the fish access again to vital Sprague River habitat, and perhaps to rebuild some fish ladders. Federal funding for basin improvements has more than doubled since 2001, to more than $28 million this year.

"I think there is greater opportunity now to work more collaboratively on solutions," he said. "But I think you need to take a piece at a time instead of a giant, comprehensive plan."

Almost certainly such a plan would include large amounts of money for modernizing irrigation systems, measuring water withdrawals, buying up water rights from some willing sellers, restoring banks on the Shasta and Scott rivers, and maybe even building a new dam and reservoir to provide summertime cold water for downstream salmon.

Doolittle could be the key to any deal. He is fast becoming a powerful player on water policy. He sits on the House Appropriations Committee's water and power subcommittee that funds water projects. Last year he cut a groundbreaking deal with Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Sacramento, that ended a 14-year battle over Sacramento-area flood control and put $138 million under his direction for water projects in his sprawling district.

Doolittle said the question in his mind is whether the four congressmen could follow the Sacramento model and negotiate a deal without outside interference. The Matsui-Doolittle agreement was approved by Congress without a hearing and was virtually unmentioned on the House and Senate floors despite its $400 million-plus cost.

Talk of consensus is most discomfiting to Herger, who many say is so embittered by the 2001 water cutoff to farmers that he sees compromise as just another word for more bad news.

To be sure, environmentalists have targeted leased farmlands on the Lower Klamath Lake and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges for extinction, believing that they should be bought by the federal government and restored into wetlands.

That view has been one of the most polarizing assertions in the Klamath basin, and Herger contends Thompson is one of its leading advocates, making him virtually impossible to work with.

Hope for consensus comes just as the House Resources Committee is preparing for a July 17 hearing in Klamath Falls on the Endangered Species Act.

Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, is the leading champion in the House of rewriting the controversial act. Many feel the hearing, which is likely to be attended only by Republicans, plays into the hands of those who believe that rewriting the act will make the basin's water problems suddenly disappear.

"This definitely won't bring people together," said Alice Kellum, chair of the Klamath River Compact Commission, an Oregon-California group created in 1957 to, among other things, prevent the export of Klamath water to Southern California.

Doolittle said, however, that a comprehensive solution for the Klamath basin and the river it sustains could only come after there is a consensus on what's made the watershed so sick.

"At some point we've got to have a stipulated set of facts we can agree upon," Doolittle said. "Representative Matsui and I had that for Sacramento. Here, we don't have it. If we can get it, then that's the foundation that builds a solution."

KBC response to Bee article

1. Editor claims there is too little water.  There is more water now in the lake and river than before the Klamath Project was built, because much of our water, up to a 30-40-foot deep lake, had no way to make it back into the river until irrigators paid for a diversion of our lake.

2. Editor blames the fish die-off on the amount of river flow and warm water. Does he believe that more warm water from Klamath Lake would help the temperature? He parrots the 'environmentalists' while disregarding the National Academy of Science (NAS) that says that more warm Klamath Water would not have prevented the die-off. The Klamath Project irrigators only use 3 1/2 percent of the water at the mouth of the Klamath.

3. We (I was there) met with commercial coastal fishermen, and also river fishermen. They did not blame us at all. Yuroks and PCFFA and environmental groups chose to blame the Klamath Irrigators 200 miles from the Trinity fish die off, regardless of the NAS science and even before the water was tested.

4. Editor says that we aren't at the table making solutions.  We were excluded from the table when the Department of Justice, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, hired Dr. Hardy to create science to go against the irrigators in the water adjudication process. Tribes were there. Agencies were there.  Irrigators were turned away at the door.

5. Irrigators and tribes and agencies reached a consensus 'at the table' that the Chiloquin Dam, blocking over 90% of sucker fish habitat, needs to go. The government's response was to pay the tribes to study it more, while 90% of 'endangered' suckers are blocked. Who says we don't find solutions?

6. Democrat Mike Thompson, St. Helen (hundreds of miles from the Klamath Basin) is bent on downsizing agriculture in the Klamath Basin by taking farming out of the wildlife refuges. According to California Waterfowl Association, Ph.D. Robert McLandress, UC Davis,  farms provided over half of the food for waterfowl, "70 million pounds of food" (HERE FOR AUDIO). "It is the most important waterfowl area in North America."

7.  Final comment: When the locals sit down, like regarding Chiloquin Dam, we do just fine and find a solution. If agencies wanted a solution to de-list the suckers, the dam would have been out last year. We get Congressmen like Thompson from other places with an agenda.. People like Hatfield committee member Rich McIntyre lives far away, is a past Waterwatch board member and American Land Conservancy (ALC) "counselor"  who has long advocated selling out our farms at a profit to ALC, and getting government funds for the Barnes Ranch which ALC would profit, and he is not from here either. 

8.  Final final comment: According to the NRC report "neither the flows nor temperatures that occurred during the fish kill were unprecedented, and the committee agreed that neither flow nor temperature conditions alone can explain the fish kill."





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