Bringing closure to the Klamath conflict

Bringing closure to the Klamath conflict

An Oregonian op-ed regarding Klamath Basin solutions by Jim McCarthy of Oregon Wild and Bob Hunter of WaterWatch.

December 21, 2007


The relicensing process for PacifiCorp’s Klamath River hydropower project presents a unique opportunity to remove its lower four dams and bring Klamath salmon back home to Oregon.

Removing these dams would be the most effective method of opening access to more than 300 miles of salmon and steelhead habitat, eliminating toxic algae and improving water quality. Dam removal should be a critical element of any Klamath Basin solution.

But dam removal alone won’t restore the river and its salmon — or bring an end to the Klamath’s conflicts. A sustainable solution will come only when water demands are brought back into balance with actual supply and wetlands are restored for improved habitat, water quality and natural storage. Leasing of National Wildlife Refuge land for commercial farming must be phased out, and the needs of fish, national wildlife refuges, tribes and downstream communities must be given equal footing with the needs of agriculture.

Unfortunately, it appears the Bush administration has hijacked the Klamath’s confidential relicensing negotiation in order to deliver a sweetheart water and power deal for politically connected agribusiness interests. This deal would come at the expense of fish, wildlife, national wildlife refuges and the U.S. taxpayer.

A large commitment of public funds will be necessary to pay for needed restoration and mitigation during dam removal in the Klamath, but the deal will fail if it is laden with costly and unwarranted subsidies for special interests.

Moreover, secret negotiations about dam relicensing should not be used to lock in a program allowing commercial farming on 22,000 acres on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges. This harmful program has led to serious declines in two of the crown jewels of America’s national wildlife system and should be phased out. If this land were managed for wildlife purposes rather than for growing potatoes and onions, it could reduce irrigation season water demand, increase water supply through natural storage, provide greatly needed wetland habitat, and improve water quality. Commercial farming has its place in the basin, but not on the public’s national wildlife refuges.

Even with dam removal, fish will still need water. It makes no sense to open up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat just to kill fish with low flows, the root cause of the catastrophic Klamath River salmon kill in 2002. Just before that tragic die-off, Oregon’s and California’s U.S. senators championed a federally funded, voluntary program to purchase land and water from willing sellers in the Klamath to address the problems created by too many interests chasing too little water. Sadly, the proposal was blocked by agribusiness interests. It’s time to again bring such a program forward.

The Klamath has long suffered from political manipulation and backroom deals. A comprehensive settlement is needed that achieves our shared goals of sustainable communities, abundant fish and wildlife, clean water and a lasting natural heritage for our children and grandchildren.

Jim McCarthy is a wildlife advocate for Oregon Wild. Bob Hunter is an attorney for WaterWatch of Oregon.

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