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 sacbee.com -- environment -- Klamath basin overhaul is urged in report

Klamath basin overhaul is urged in report

The proposal for helping fish includes the removal of up to three dams.
By Stuart Leavenworth -- Bee Staff Writer

Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The National Research Council called for a watershed-wide set of fixes Tuesday to help threatened salmon and other fish in the Klamath basin, an embattled expanse of farms, forests and depleted salmon streams on the California-Oregon border.

In a 334-page report, a scientific panel recommended the removal of up to three dams, restoration of wetlands and other measures to restore fish and prevent conflicts like one that exploded in 2001. The fight pitted farmers against environmentalists and Indian tribes and flashed a national spotlight on how the Bush administration handles water disputes.
Until now, much of the debate has revolved around the Klamath Project -- a federal irrigation project, mostly in Oregon, that diverts water for the farming of alfalfa and other crops. Tuesday's report also targeted logging practices and water diversions elsewhere in the watershed, including tributaries that flow out of Northern California.

In particular, the council called for studies on removing Iron Gate Dam and Dwinnell Dam in Siskiyou County to improve passage of coho salmon, a threatened species. If implemented, the latter recommendation would drain Lake Shastina -- a reservoir surrounded by hundreds of homes.

Jamie Lea, general manager of the Lake Shastina Property Owners Association, called the recommendation a "real shocker" late Tuesday. Removal of the dam would scare away home buyers around the 4,000-lot development, hurting developers and property owners, he said.

But Peter Moyle, a fisheries biologist from University of California, Davis, who helped write the report, said Dwinnell Dam and other structures hurt fish passage and prevent cool water from flowing to spawning areas downstream. At the very least, he said, agencies should study the costs and benefits of removing the dam.

The Klamath basin generated national headlines in 2001 when federal agencies cut water to farmers to help fish during a prolonged drought. The cutback became a rallying point for opponents of the Endangered Species Act, who organized protests to publicize their cause.

In a vindication for farmers, the report found insufficient data to support a 2001 decision by federal agencies to keep water levels high in Upper Klamath Lake to help native sucker fish that had dwindled during the mid-1990s.

Federal biologists had assumed that high water levels would reduce acidity in the lake and reduce fish-killing algae, but the research council said there was no "causal connection" to support that finding.

On the other hand, the research council credited federal biologists for using the best information they had available at the time and rejected claims they were using "junk science," as some members of Congress claimed.

The scientific panel also took a Solomon-like approach to another contentious issue -- how much water should flow from the Klamath Project downstream. The National Marine Fisheries Service had concluded that extra flows would help threatened coho salmon, which spawn mostly in the tributaries of the Klamath. The council cast doubt on this finding, but said the extra water could be helpful to other species, such as chinook salmon, that aren't yet listed as threatened.

Farm leaders in Klamath Falls said they were generally pleased Tuesday.

"This reaffirms our position that focusing solely on the Klamath Project -- which tends to be the focus of environmental groups -- isn't going to solve this huge problem," said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

Environmentalists, however, note that the council calls for more cold water to be released downstream during key times of the year -- which could require Klamath farmers to do more in conserving water.

"This more or less verifies things that people in the lower river have said for years," said Glen Spain, a lawyer for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "We need to get more water to help fish and get away from single-species management."

To the disappointment of some environmentalists, the research council sidestepped the question of what killed more than 30,000 salmon in the lower Klamath River last summer. Biologists for the California Department of Fish and Game blamed low flows from the Klamath Project, but the report noted that river flows or water temperatures alone could explain the fish kill.

The research council made several other findings sure to spark debate:

* Fish hatcheries on the Klamath and Trinity rivers are displacing wild salmon with hatched ones, possibly hurting the entire population. The report recommends a six-to eight-year closure of one of the hatcheries.

* "High levels of erosion" from U.S. Forest Service logging activities are hurting fish spawning in the Salmon River.

* Grazing, agriculture, groundwater pumping and other activities are warming water and reducing flows in the Shasta and Scott rivers, two other key tributaries for salmon in California.

The National Research Council is an arm of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and its recommendations often set the agenda for Congress and regulatory agencies.

In a statement on Tuesday, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said her department was reviewing the report but agreed that a "broader approach" was needed.

Scientists spent 20 months on the report -- a long time, given all the environmental problems facing other parts of the West, said one member of the panel.

"But all the issues -- environment, property rights, agriculture, tribal obligations -- collide in the Klamath," said Jeff Mount, a UC Davis water scientist. "That is why it gets this attention."

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