Time to Take Action
Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.


Senator Whitsett’s May Newsletter


Government agencies have functionally closed 700 miles of the Pacific Coast to commercial salmon fishing and have drastically curtailed the salmon sport fishery in the same area. Spurred on by the hysterical misinformation of certain  environmental advocates, many media outlets and opportunistic politicians cannot wait to blame the Upper Klamath Basin irrigators.

Coos Bay Meeting with Fishermen

In a May 5th meeting in Coos Bay, Upper Klamath Basin irrigators met with about 50 southern coastal salmon boat owners and coastal political leaders including Senator Joanne Verger, and Representatives Wayne Kreiger and Arnie Roblan.

In the nearly five hour meeting arranged by Klamath County Commissioner Bill Brown and Coos County Commissioner John Griffith not a single fisherman blamed conditions in the Upper Klamath Basin for the salmon fishery closure. In fact, these fishermen blamed a perfect federal regulatory storm and fishery mismanagement by state and federal agencies. They compared their current plight to the unjustified 2001shut off of irrigation water to the 1400 farm families in the Klamath Project. They said that projected inadequate salmon runs are a government contrived regulatory crisis. A calamity has only been manufactured by applying management that alleges that hatchery fish are somehow different than natural fish. No genetic or visible difference exists between natural and hatchery fish other than the man made markings on the hatchery fish. This travesty continues in defiance of a court order prohibiting such regulatory slight of hand. Additionally, they identified sea lion predation, unfavorable ocean conditions, and the up to 600 foot long international factory fishing and canning vessels working off our Oregon and California coasts as other significant causes of this year’s low salmon numbers. In fact, they characterized these huge vessels that continue to fish off our coast as “the most efficient fish killing machines ever devised by man”. Their conservative estimate of the salmon predation by the 300 or more resident sea lions at the mouth of the Klamath River was about 25,000 fish during the fall Chinook salmon run. These multigenerational fishing families have recognized for decades that changing ocean conditions result in dramatic periodic differences in coastal salmon populations.

The professional fishermen attending the meeting stated unanimously that environmental activist Glen Spain’s Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen Association neither represents them or their interests, nor the interest of any other fishermen that they know. Collectively we came to understand that farmers and fishermen are not the enemy and that we must stand united in our opposition to the open attacks on our cultures and our economies. The meeting ended in mutual pledges by the irrigators and the fishermen to work together to save our natural resources industries. To that end planning is ongoing to identify and create media events that will focus on the fishermen’s plight and concentrate on the real causes of the decline in Klamath River Chinook salmon runs. To that end, the Klamath Basin farmers and County Commissioners are hosting the fishermen and coastal political contingent this Thursday, June 1st in Klamath Falls. The Klamath Relief Fund has been reactivated to provide aid to these coastal businessmen because their financial plight has been imposed on them by their own government in a virtual rerun of the events in 2001 that destroyed the businesses of many basin farmers.

           The Facts About the Upper Klamath Basin 

The frenzied propaganda and the news reports blaming the Upper Klamath Basin ignore certain facts.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Klamath Basin Undepleted Naturalized Flow Study compares what Klamath River flows would have been without agricultural development in the Upper Klamath Basin, to what the flows have historically been during the past 50 years. The report clearly demonstrates that all the irrigation practices in the Upper Klamath Basin reduce the Klamath River flow at Keno by no more than 3% of their annual natural flow. It further demonstrates that during the late summer and early fall of dry years the Klamath Project and off project irrigation development actually creates more flow in the Klamath River at Keno.

The water being required by federal regulations to enhance Klamath River stream flow is water stored for irrigation. The right to use that water to irrigate belongs to the Upper Klamath Basin irrigators. No additional water can be made available without reallocation of that irrigation water. Last year and again this year the upper basin irrigators’ Water Bank has allocated 100,000 acre feet of irrigation water to instream Klamath River flow. Dr. William Lewis, the chair of the National Research Council’s Committee on Threatened and Endangered Species in the Upper Klamath Basin, stated emphatically that the eutrophication of Upper Klamath Lake is irreversible. He said that the process has been ongoing for millennia and will continue until the lake is completely infilled, and that restoring the lake to its original size would serve only make it larger and shallower, thereby increasing the rate of eutrophication and making the water quality worse. He predicted that releasing more mid-summer warm lake water would not help the Coho and might actually harm them.

Recently completed studies by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries demonstrate that many of the volcanic rocks in the Upper Klamath Basin are abnormally high in phosphorous content. This is true of the volcanic rocks in the Upper Sprague, the Upper Williamson, the Lost River sub basin, and the Fort Klamath/Wood River watersheds. Not surprisingly, the erosion of these rocks over millennia has resulted in the deposition of up to 6,000 feet of phosphorous rich sediment in Upper Klamath Lake. The recent DOGAMI mapping and rock analysis in the Upper Basin clearly shows that the phosphorous came down the rivers in sediment originating in those phosphorous rich volcanic rocks and that the process will continue uninterrupted for future millennia.

Geologically, Upper Klamath Lake is nearing its end stage of infill and eutrophication and now averages only about five feet in depth. Upper Klamath Lake is located in a very windy area. According to studies by the United States Geologic Survey each wind event re-suspends millions of tons of this phosphorous rich sediment in the lake. Incredibly, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality rejected these facts in establishing the natural background source of phosphorous in Upper Klamath Lake. Instead, they adopted the study by Dr. Jacob Kahn who chose eight springs adjacent to the lake and predicted that the mean phosphorous concentration in those eight springs should be equal to the natural background phosphorous concentration in the rivers flowing into the lake. They ignore the fact that Kahn’s prediction fails to explain how several thousand feet of phosphorous rich sediment infilled Upper Klamath Lake.

At the end of the last ice age, virtually all of the valleys that make up the Upper Klamath Basin were submerged by Lake Modoc. As this ancient lake receded to what is now Upper Klamath Lake, Tulelake, and the Lower Klamath Lake it left behind a relatively flat lakebed. For instance, in its course from the head of the Langell Valley to Tulelake the Lost River averages only one foot of fall per mile. The Sprague River in its course from near Bly to Upper Klamath Lake averages less than one foot of fall per 1,000 feet.

These rivers flow very slowly through this flat terrain, and the flow is further slowed substantially by their natural sinuosity. As a direct result of the slow flow, the river water is exposed to the summer heat for relatively long periods. Heat always moves from a warmer area to a cooler area. The cooler water absorbs heat from the warmer air and the warmer river bed. In a slow moving stream, this transfer of heat is governed by the difference between the temperature of the water and the temperature of the surrounding air and its riverbanks and the time the water is exposed to this temperature gradient. In this manner the summer flow of the rivers has been heated for millennia and will continue to be heated for millennia to come. The process is largely independent of shade.

The laws of thermodynamics clearly show that neither restoration of river sinuosity nor planting trees to shade the rivers will improve river water temperatures. Upper Klamath Lake is heated further because it is shallow and because the winds continually mix the water preventing meaningful temperature stratification. Neither of these criteria can be changed by restoration efforts. In fact, making the lake larger, and on average shallower, will only serve to increase water temperature and decrease water quality.

The four limiting factors for the growth of Blue Green Algae are warm water temperature, phosphorous, relatively still shallow water, and sunshine. For millennia during the summer months in the Upper Klamath Basin all these factors have had no limit.

Blue Green Algae are extremely efficient nitrogen fixers.  Given adequate phosphorous, water temperature, sunlight and time they will harvest nitrogen from the air to support their super abundant growth.  Sediment cores obtained from Upper Klamath Lake prove that various species of Blue Green Algae have flourished and dominated in the lake for thousands of years. The natural boom and bust cycle of Blue Green Algae growth creates periods of extremely low dissolved oxygen and periods of extremely high ammonia content. Both of these periodic conditions can be highly lethal to fish species. Regardless of these naturally occurring water quality issues the nutrient rich Upper Klamath Lake continues to provide an excellent fishery for its signature Red Band Trout.

Seasonal water quality in the Upper Klamath Basin cannot be significantly improved because the geologic conditions that have driven these water quality conditions for thousands of years continue to exist. While fully understanding this obvious seasonal poor water quality, Dr. William Lewis, chair of the National Research Council Committee on Endangered and Threatened Fishes in the Klamath River Basin stated that the 2002 fish die-off in the Lower Klamath River could not be explained by either a unique low flow or by high water temperature. He said that the California Department of Fish and Game conclusions were dubious, that the cause of the fish die off was not known, and that another cause other than flow and temperature should be determined.


It is unquestionable that there is a problem with the Klamath River salmon. That problem is not being caused by irrigation and farming practices in the Upper Klamath Basin. The quality of the water leaving the Upper Klamath Basin has not changed significantly in the last two hundred years. If salmon thrived here prior to the development of the irrigation projects, given the opportunity, they should thrive here now.


Senator Doug Whitsett




Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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