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