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 Scientists offer Klamath remedies

Scientists offer Klamath remedies

A panel says some dams must be removed and wetlands restored, but that taking water from farms would not help fish recover



Farmers who went dry in the Klamath Basin's 2001 drought found vindication Tuesday from a national panel of scientists who insist the solution to Klamath's protracted water struggles lies not in irrigation shutoffs but in sweeping repairs to an out-of-balance landscape.   
The National Research Council, in a final and exhaustive report released Tuesday, says federal agencies must remove dams that impede fish migration, restore vital wetlands, and return clean, cool water to rivers and lakes if the fish are to recover.

Federal agencies instead have focused on the easier target of the federal Klamath Project that supports more than 1,000 farms.

In the severe drought of 2001 federal biologists reserved so much water for suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and coho salmon in the Klamath River that most farms watched crops wither. But there is no evidence it did the fish any good, said the panel of 12 scientists assembled at the request of Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

"There was one knob they could turn, and that was the one on the project," said Jeffrey Mount, a professor at the University of California at Davis who served on the panel. "The committee doesn't believe that will solve the problem."

The long-awaited report carries great weight for the Klamath Basin, as both the Bush administration and Congress said they would look to it for guidance in resolving the region's persistent and emotionally charged water struggles. It follows a preliminary report last year that found the 2001 water cutoff was unjustified.

Their report also says diversion of water to farms last year cannot by itself be blamed for last fall's historic die-off of more than 33,000 salmon in the lower Klamath River in Northern California.

It says the causes and solutions of the long-term decline of fish extend far beyond the Klamath Project.

"This makes clear to all fair-minded people that the bull's-eye should never have been put on the farmers," said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. "The solutions to recovering these fish must come through collaboration, and not just confrontation with farmers."

He said he would ask the Bush administration to adopt the report's recommendations.

Norton said the Interior Department is reviewing the report.

"We agree with the council that the recovery of coho salmon and the two (species of) suckers cannot be achieved through actions primarily focused on the Klamath Project but require a broader approach that includes the participation of a wide range of stakeholders in the basin," she said.

The findings support Klamath farmers, who contend they have borne more than their share of the burden for aiding the fish. But the panel also echoed many calls by tribes and environmental groups for repair of eroding riverbanks, dammed streams and other obstacles to recovery of the fish.

"If there's one central theme, it's that the failures of the past are the result of not taking an ecosystem approach," Mount said.

Among the panel's recommendations: Rapidly remove Chiloquin Dam, which blocks access to some 90 percent of historic sucker spawning habitat on the Sprague River above the town of Chiloquin. Also, remove small dams and diversions throughout the tributaries of the Klamath River to open more spawning habitat for threatened coho salmon. Boost oxygen levels in Upper Klamath Lake to improve conditions for endangered suckers in the broad, shallow lake. Eliminate stocked game fish in Lake of the Woods west of Klamath Falls and reintroduce suckers there. Expand lakes and wetlands within the Klamath wildlife refuges in Northern California, which could flood land used for farming, to provide more habitat for endangered suckers there. Shut down a fish hatchery at Iron Gate Dam in Northern California to halt the release of fish that may compete with threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River. Evaluate the possible removal of Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River and Dwinnell Dam on the Shasta River, because they block large reaches of coho salmon habitat. Alter logging, grazing and other land management practices to prevent erosion and other damage to coho habitat.

The cost of the actions over the next five years would total $25 million to $35 million, excluding major projects such as removal of Chiloquin Dam. But panel members said it's clear that Chiloquin Dam, a low diversion dam that is no longer essential to agriculture, must come out.

"When we saw that and saw what it was doing, we were all looking at each other saying, 'Why wasn't this out of here 10 years ago?' " Mount said.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has championed removal of the dam and has pushed for funding to begin disassembling it. He said Tuesday the Bush administration also supports the action.

"This report gives us a good road map for what needs to be done," Walden said.

The scientific panel said federal agencies must look beyond Upper Klamath Lake to restore the sucker population. Conditions in the lake itself have deteriorated to such a degree it may be virtually impossible to prevent continuing algae blooms that, when they decay, cause toxic conditions for fish.

Environmental groups found the report a mixed bag. Although they praised the recommendations to consider removing dams and restore wetlands in the national wildlife refuges, they said more water needs to be reserved for fish until those steps are fulfilled.

If steps are not taken to repair the Klamath ecosystem, conditions would worsen, said Peter Moyle, a University of California at Davis, professor who also served on the panel. That would lead to more crises like the cutoff of water in 2001.

"The Klamath Project can't solve all the problems of the watershed," said Dan Keppen of the Klamath Water Users Association. "I'm hoping people will say, 'Let's put the blame game behind us and let's deal with the real problems together.' "

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com

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