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Dikes blasted to restore Oregon marshland for endangered fish

10/30/2007 by Jeff Barnard, Oregonian    

FOLLOWED BY: Levees breached to restore Klamath wetlands

CHILOQUIN, Ore. (AP) Explosives sent clouds of dirt sky high Tuesday, breaching dikes to restore marshland for endangered fish at the heart of a long, bitter battle over water in the Klamath Basin.

The charges of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil spaced 10 feet apart along two miles of earthen dike allowed water to start dribbling into 2,500 acres of the Williamson River Delta.

By spring, what used to be among the most productive land farmland in the region is expected to be flooded.

It marked the culmination of 12 years of work to overcome animosities among farmers, Indians, and conservation groups and to improve Upper Klamath Lake for Lost River suckers and shortnosed suckers.

The fish are sacred to the Klamath Tribes. As endangered species, their water needs have twice forced shutoffs of irrigation to most of the 1,400 farms on the Klamath Reclamation Project, which covers 180,000 acres of high desert straddling the California-Oregon border east of the Cascade Range.

The most recent shut-off, in 2001, drew national attention again this year when the Washington Post reported that Vice President Dick Cheney took a hand in getting the water turned on for the benefit of farmers.

One of their leaders said Tuesday that farmers hoped all sides would recognize sacrifices being made in the basin.

"This particular site has been viewed by so many as so important (to the ecological restoration of the basin) that the agricultural community was able set aside those feelings that we are losing our foothold here," said John Crawford of Tule Lake, Calif.

"We all recognize that for all of us to coexist here, there have to be sacrifices made on all sides," he said. "As long as we are making the sacrifices on the part of the native species here ... the members of the environmental community and members of the tribal communities have to acknowledge and support the idea that the remaining acres of agriculture have to remain viable."

The Nature Conservancy bought the land, known as Tulana Farms, in 1996 for $5 million with money from corporations and the federal government.

It is part of a series of marshland restoration projects on the northern end of Upper Klamath Lake that will ultimately approach 20,000 acres. The lake is the primary reservoir of the irrigation system.

In the 1950s, when the suckers were still plentiful in the lake, farmers diked and pumped the water off the delta where the Williamson River flows into Upper Klamath Lake. They grew potatoes, wheat, barley and alfalfa.

Joe Kirk, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said he remembers being a first-grader in 1950, taking his Radio Flyer wagon to the river and filling it suckers, known in the Klamath language as chwam.

Kirk said he was optimistic the many restoration efforts, including those by the tribes, would one day allow the tribe again to harvest the chwam.

The restored marsh will provide 2,500 acres of refuge for hundreds of thousands of larval suckers migrating from spawning beds to feed and hide from predators before moving into Upper Klamath Lake.

The marsh also will filter agricultural waste carried by rain runoff into Upper Klamath Lake and ultimately the Klamath River, benefiting salmon as well as suckers, said Mark Stern, a biologist for the Nature Conservancy.

The lake and river are plagued by algae fed by agricultural runoff.

The expansion of the lake also adds storage capacity that will allow more water for irrigation as well as fish.

The blasts opened the northern half of the delta bordering Agency Lake. The southern half bordering Upper Klamath Lake will be blasted in a year or so, bringing to 5,800 acres the marshland restored. About 700 acres will remain in farmland growing organic alfalfa, said Stern.

The delta restoration was identified by the National Academy of Sciences and local people on a panel created by former Sen. Mark Hatfield as one of the top priorities for restoring natural systems to the Upper Klamath Basin.

Over the past century, 350,000 acres of marsh in the Upper Klamath Basin was reduced to less than 75,000 by farmers and federal agencies building dikes to create rich farmland.

In 1992, biologists realized that few suckers were growing to be adults, and declared them both endangered species due to loss of habitat, poor water quality, and overfishing.

The Klamath Reclamation Project shut off water in 1992 and 2001 to most of the farms. Meanwhile, declining salmon runs in the Klamath River forced huge cutbacks in commercial salmon fishing.

Despite $500,000 in federal funds spent on various projects, the level of Upper Klamath lake last summer came within less than an inch of dropping so far that irrigation water again had to be shut off.



Levees breached to restore Klamath wetlands

The Oregonian October 30, 2007 by Gail Kensey Hill

KLAMATH FALLS -- Fifty-year-old levees blew up in a dramatic display of dirt and smoke Tuesday, freeing lake water as part of an unprecedented wetlands restoration effort to save protected fish and cool the water wars that have divided the Klamath Basin for decades.

At 11:10 a.m., the first in a series of blasts sent chunks of the massive dikes 300 feet into the air. One after another, detonations fueled by 100 tons of explosives pounded the air, shooting up like fireworks in a billowy display of blacks, greens and yellows.

Less than five minutes later, four half-mile sections of peat soil the consistency of powdered sugar lay in heaps. Slowly the smoke settled. Even more slowly, water from Agency and Upper Klamath lakes began seeping into tawny-colored barley fields.

The flooding of 2,500 acres of the Williamson River delta is designed to aid the recovery of two species of fish found only in the Klamath Basin. The Lost River and shortnose suckers were declared endangered under federal law in 1988. Ever since, competing interests have been trying to put together an acceptable recovery plan.

The suckers once thrived in the wetlands of the lower Williamson River. Their numbers began to decline after engineers built the levees in the 1950s to drain the river delta for farmland.

But the $10 million restoration project goes well beyond the survival of a species. It reaches into faltering environments, disrupted tribal cultures and struggling farm families, attempting to harmonize human communities and wildlife habitat.

The fish "are like the canary in the mine shaft," said Mark Stern, Klamath area conservation director of The Nature Conservancy, which bought the delta property and is spearheading the restoration. "They're indicative of far bigger problems."

The project should put another 17,000 acre-feet of water in the lake, he said. An acre-foot is roughly enough water to cover a football field 1 foot deep. Lake levels will go down about 2 inches, but spread out further, Stern said. "Eventually that will be available for downstream uses."

Joseph Kirk, council chairman of the Klamath Tribe, remembers a time before the levees were built. He was in first grade. At the river near his grandmother's house, he would fill his wagon with suckers and sell them to friends for a nickel or a dime apiece. The fish were a food source and often were smoked and dried.

"They had a tremendous impact on our social and cultural lives," said Kirk, who supports the delta restoration. On Tuesday, he stood among a small crowd of people gathered to witness the levees' destruction.

Marshall Staunton, a Klamath Basin farmer on the California side of the border, is a veteran of the water wars. He was one of 15,000 farmers who hit the streets of Klamath Falls in 2001 to protest the actions of the federal government, which had shut off irrigation water to try to protect the suckers and another endangered fish, the coho salmon.

"This is a river that's seen a lot of controversy," Staunton said. "We hope that with projects like this we can continue to share the water and improve the situation for everyone."
-- Gail Kinsey Hill


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