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Klamath reaches uneasy peace
Farmers, other groups try to work toward water compromises

Mateusz Perkowski, Capital Press 10/23/08

Rancher Bill Kennedy explains that the Klamath Project is beneficial for wildlife, which rely on canals for drinking water, as well as extremely effective for agricultural production. Kennedy was one of the speakers during a recent tour of the basin launched by the Klamath Water Users Association.

Back when the U.S. Department of the Interior was still a fledgling agency, decades before the Klamath Project even existed, the Klamath Basin already had water problems.

In 1857, members of an Army expedition to the region noted in their journals that the water quality in Upper Klamath Lake was so poor that their horses refused to drink from it.

Naturally occurring phosphates in the basin's rich volcanic soils had rendered the water undrinkable that year due to turbidity and other factors totally unrelated to farming, said Steve Kandra, a farmer and board member of the Klamath Water Users Association.

"These people didn't have any political axes to grind. They were just writing down what they saw," he said.

These days, however, the knee-jerk reaction is to blame water quality problems on irrigation in the Klamath Project, which was authorized in 1905, he said.

"We're starting with a natural system that doesn't meet anybody's water quality standards," said Kandra. "You can eliminate agriculture in the Klamath Project, and it won't make a lick of difference in the Upper Klamath Lake."

Clearing up such misconceptions was among the top priorities of the agricultural tour that the Klamath Water Users Association recently held for members of the public, he said.

People not involved in agriculture may drive by important components of the irrigation project on a daily basis with no concept of their significance, said Greg Addington, executive director of the KWUA.

The organization launched its fall harvest tour this year to help local business people and government workers grasp the purpose of those canals, dams, pumping plants and other features, he said.

"We really need these people to understand this stuff," he said.

The tour will likely become an annual event, although the KWUA may stagger the seasonal schedule so participants can witness different crop harvests and other practices, Addington said.

"There's no one time of year when you can see it all," he said.

A lot has changed in the Klamath basin since the federal government shut off irrigation water in 2001 to protect endangered fish species, which angered farmers, and then allowed irrigation the next year, which environmentalists blamed for a fish die-off.

Tempers have cooled on the agricultural and conservationist fronts, and many people who were sworn enemies are now open to cooperation, said Addington.

"The communication is better than it ever has been," he said.

Even so, there is turbulence beneath the surface.

The spirit of teamwork between farmers, tribes and conservationists is ultimately very delicate: A major disaster, like a drought, could shatter the alliance, said Addington.

The January settlement agreement that was intended to resolve water disputes between growers, fishermen, conservationists, tribes and the federal government has proven divisive within stakeholder groups, he said.

"It's not without controversy," he said.

The agreement hinges on the removal of several dams along the Klamath river, but PacifiCorp, which owns the structures, is in no hurry to do that.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is consulting with PacifiCorp regarding the fate of the dams, and the California State Water Resources Control Board begun reviewing the structures' impact on water quality on Oct. 21.

Meanwhile, the settlement calls for $985 million in government money for restoration projects, which could be a tall order during tough economic times.

Restoration projects themselves can be the subject of contention. A year ago, the Nature Conservancy blew up levees along the Upper Klamath Lake, reverting 2,500 acres of farmland back into marsh.

Some growers see the project as a worthwhile compromise, while others believe it unnecessarily takes land out of production without any concrete assurances for producers.

In other cases, though, conservation and agriculture go hand-in-hand.

During the tour, participants were shown "walking wetlands" along Tulelake in the California portion of the Klamath Project.

By voluntarily flooding farmland for several years to create wetlands, growers essentially rotate crop production with waterfowl habitat, said Ron Cole, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge.

These young wetlands are actually more beneficial for birds than older, established ones, because they improve access and enhance invertebrate activity, he said.

After the land is returned to agriculture after several years, it's more productive because flooding suppresses weeds and diseases and ends up aerating the soil.

"Agriculture can be part of the solution for wildlife conservation," said Cole.

Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: mperkowski@capitalpress.com.


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