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Agreement guarantees refuges water

"(Cole) defends the Endangered Species Act and the involved National Environment Protection Act, which are often seen as obstacles....“They allow citizens the right to work for solutions, not to stop achieving solutions.”
“Throwing our hands up and saying, ‘let’s go to court,’ is not a solution. The time to solve the problem is here,” (Mauser) says. (KBC NOTE: An author and person at the table of the closed-door Klamath Settlement Craig Tucker is on the board of Riverkeeper who opposes the agreement and promises to litigate if their demands are not met.)

By Lee Juillerat, Herald and News October 16, 2009
H&N photo by Lee Juillerat Ron Cole stands by a nearly waterless marsh that he says can be better managed if the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement is implemented.

Every fall, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges staff members wonder when the call will come.

Ron Cole, who oversees management of the six refuges, including Lower Klamath, got the message last week, giving him notice that water for the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is being turned off.

If the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, a complex plan designed to benefit Upper and Lower Klamath Basin tribes, commercial and recreational fishermen, irrigators and three species of endangered fish, is eventually approved, things will be different, Cole says.

The refuges are the last to receive water. Only after the needs for endangered suckers and salmon, tribal interests and irrigators are met does water flow into the Lower Klamath refuge.

“We get water when it’s available, when it’s in surplus of everybody else’s needs,” Cole says. “If the water is there today, you take it today. There’s no provision to save it for later.”

“Timing and quantity are the keys,” says complex biologist Dave Mauser. “As important as the ability to get that water is the ability to access that water when we want to. It’s like a farmer who needs water at a certain time for his crops.”

Guarantees water

Mauser and Cole, who were involved in Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement negotiations, say the agreement guarantees water and the ability to determine when and where it’s used. The annual fall cutoffs mean no or limited water to fields that could provide habitat for migrating waterfowl.

“This is a real important time for us,” Cole says of fall. “Our job is to set the table for them (migrating waterfowl) so there’s plenty of food.”

Cole estimates the refuge has received about 25,000-acre feet of water this year. Under the KBRA, the refuge would receive nearly double that amount, 48,000 acre-feet, in low water years and upward of 60,000 acre-feet in wetter years from April to October.

Part of the Project

If available, the refuge could receive another 35,000 acre-feet in the winter. Water from the Klamath River is pumped onto the Lower Klamath from canals near Highway 97 and Worden.

The KBRA also includes a provision that for the first time in history makes the refuge part of the Klamath Reclamation Project and puts it in equal standing with agriculture.

“It’s important to be a part of the Project to legally have access to that water,” Cole says.

Planning ahead

Mauser says that until last week’s shutoff, 70 to 80 percent of the water wanted for the Lower Klamath had been provided. Depending on weather patterns, there’s no way of knowing when water will again be available.

If the KBRA is approved, he says refuge managers can evaluate annual water forecasts and plan when and where guaranteed allotments are used.

Under the current arrangement, water is provided when the Bureau of Reclamation determines it’s available. Cole compares the situation to farmers receiving water in December, when fields are dormant, and not in spring and summer when crops are planted.

“You go to the faucet and there’s nothing there. It’s hit or miss,” he said.

The search for solutions

Dave Mauser, a biologist for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges, has seen efforts to deal with water issues come and go since moving to the Klamath Basin in 1991.

“The previous years were a debate about science — whose science was right,” he says.

In recent years, Mauser says there’s been a shift, one that mixes science, or the needs for endangered fish, with the needs of people living in the Upper and Lower Klamath River Basin.

“Throwing our hands up and saying, ‘let’s go to court,’ is not a solution. The time to solve the problem is here,” he says.

Mauser says negotiations have been affected by multiple factors, from changes in presidential administrations and evolving science to stakeholders being able to identify issues most important to them.

A major turning point has been the relicensing of the Klamath River dams.

He believes PacifiCorp, which owns the four dams, made a business decision to remove the structures because of the projected costs of trying to meet various state and federal mandates and court fees.

“Having a shot at dam removal was a key,” Mauser says.

Ron Cole, who manages the refuge complex, agrees.

“In their eyes,” he says of groups that have criticized the plan, “it’s not perfect and so it’s not worth doing.”

He defends the Endangered Species Act and the involved National Environment Protection Act, which are often seen as obstacles. In Cole’s eyes, “They allow citizens the right to work for solutions, not to stop achieving solutions.”

Long-range planning at the refuges

The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement isn’t the only issue facing the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges. Beginning next month will be public scopings, or information gathering, for a long-range comprehensive conservation plan for five of the complex’s six refuges.

The complex is wrapping up a management plan for the Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. The pending plan will include the Lower Klamath, Tule Lake, Clear Lake, Bear Valley and Upper Klamath wildlife refuges.

Public meetings will be in Tulelake and Klamath Falls, and probably elsewhere. After obtaining public input, staff will write a draft plan, get public review, and develop a final plan.

The potential Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which would give the refuges status as a partner in the Klamath Irrigation Project and guarantee water supplies, will be included as an alternative in the plan.

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