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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Fish, economy connected through water 
Upper Klamath Lake needed both for irrigation and endangered fish 
by Sara Hottman, Herald and News 9/29/10
   Editor’s note: This is one in an ongoing series of stories about various issues with the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and how it might impact local residents. County residents will vote this coming general election on an advisory measure concerning the KBRA and dam removal agreement.   
     Irrigated agriculture is one of the driving forces in the Klamath County economy. Much of the land used to grow crops relies on water deliveries from the area’s largest water storage — Upper Klamath Lake.
   However, the lake serves more than commercial fisheries and farmers and ranchers in   and around the Klamath Reclamation Project. It is also home to two endangered species of fish that are federally protected. Voters should care because the health and population of those fish has a direct impact on irrigation water availability throughout the Klamath Basin.  
   One of the key components of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement is restoring and sustaining fish habitats.
   The efforts will consume at least $493.2 million of the projected $1.5 billion cost to fully implement the KBRA, which seeks to balance water rights among stakeholders in the Klamath Basin — tribes, environmental groups and irrigators.
   Current water and dam conditions in the upper Klamath Basin — including Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake — can be harmful to fish and reduce their populations, according to the agreement. Coho salmon, bull trout and Lost River and shortnose suckers are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.  
   Fish are fundamental to freshwater ecosystems, and some, including salmon, are a food source and commodity that has been unavailable on the lower part of the Klamath River, said Craig Tucker, Klamath coordinator with the Karuk Tribe in California.
   “It’s not fish versus farmer, it’s fisherman versus farmer,” Tucker said. “People who want to save dams say, ‘They’re putting the lowly sucker fish above human interest,’ but that’s inaccurate.
   “The interests of humans who live down here are equitable to the people who live up there.”
   Part of the KBRA plan for fisheries is to remove four dams owned by PacifiCorp along the Klamath River. The process could take decades. Three of the dams don’t have fish ladders, inhibiting fish migration. Proponents of removing the dams say it’s the only way to allow fish, specifically salmon, to move freely along the river.
   But some irrigators disagree.
   “(Dams) serve a good, useful purpose,” said Tom Mallams, president of Klamath Off-Project Water Users. “They are existing infrastructure … that provide renewable energy. We should be building new dams, not taking them away.”
   Upper Klamath Lake is under regulation that ensures its surface elevation does not drop below a specific level for suckers. Additionally, there   are court orders outlining how much water must be released down the Klamath River to fulfill the needs of salmon and other species. Water is released at certain times each year to mimic natural river flows, and assist in spawning.
   “We’re not saving the fish because we think they’re cute. We’re saving them because people want to catch them, sell them, and make money,” Tucker said. “It means jobs, economic vitality.”
   But Mallams said it’s futile to try to grow the salmon population upstream.
   “The salmon were never up here on a consistent basis. The Klamath Tribe subsisted on the sucker fish because there were never salmon up here,” Mallams said. “Why would they eat sucker if they had salmon?”
   Irrigators are frustrated that their water rights — their livelihoods — come in behind tribal trust obligations and protecting fish. KBRA proponents say implementing the agreement will end that hierarchy.  
   “It’s not fair that one community should be able to prosper at the expense of another,” Tucker said. “That’s the spirit of KBRA.”
   Phone calls to the Klamath Tribes were not returned.
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