A river runs through them

A river runs through them

By Winston Ross
Eugene Register-Guard
October 02, 2006

Everyone agrees: Fix the Klamath; no one agrees on how to do it

The story of the Klamath River takes place in two very different settings.

One is at the base of Sheepy Ridge in the Oregon-California border town of Tule Lake, in the upper Klamath Basin. Another is in just about any fishing community along the Oregon and California coasts.

In Tule Lake it’s Steve Kandra’s story, his John Deere swather munching rows of alfalfa. It’s a water story, of sprinklers pitching water across potato and wheat farms, of farmers slogging through deliberately flooded fields.

“This water is about as precious as the air you breathe, you know,” says Richard Graham, pausing from his morning chores. “Nothing lives without it.”

Including fish.

On the coast, 643 miles away in Eureka, Calif., the Klamath River is Olie Knox’s story. He’s puttering around the Rose Ann, getting the boat ready for a cod trip that will earn only a paltry paycheck. The real money is in salmon, but there’s no salmon season this year in Eureka. Faced with poor returns from the nearby Klamath River, federal fishery managers lopped more than 80 percent off the commercial season on the West Coast, a crippling blow to communities from Brookings to Astoria and beyond.

“Everybody’s poor,” Knox says. “We’re scraping pennies just to pay our bills.”

Farther north, in Charleston, fisherman Jeff Reeves was stunned to hear that poor returns in the Klamath would shut down half the commercial salmon season this year.

“We’ve got one sick river affecting 700 miles of communities up and down the coast,” he says. “And it’s not from overfishing.”

What is it, then? Why is one sick river affecting 700 miles of coastline? And what can be done about it?

The answer is as complex and elusive as the Klamath River system itself: a vast network of lakes, marshes and rivers fed by snow from the mountains surrounding the high desert of the Klamath Basin.

The Klamath once sustained huge populations of migratory birds, short-nosed suckerfish known to Indians as “c’wam,” and hundreds of thousands of chinook and coho salmon.

But in 1905, the federal government drained lakes and wetlands in the region, diverting water to spur agricultural growth. The Klamath Project wiped out 80 percent of the basin’s natural wetlands, reducing summer flows to a small fraction of their historic levels. The bureau also built five dams between Klamath Falls and the Pacific Ocean, cutting off 350 miles of habitat for fish.

The coho salmon and c’wam that Indian tribes once relied on are now on the federally endangered list, and intense battles over water have created sharp divisions among farmers, tribes and fishermen.

The conflict intensified in 2002, when 33,000 salmon died in the Klamath River after the Bush administration reversed an earlier Bureau of Reclamation move that had, for the first time in the Klamath Project’s history, curtailed water flows to area farmers. The result: Low river levels and high temperatures created uninhabitable conditions for the fish.

Four years later, problems on the Klamath struck the Oregon Coast. After three years of poor salmon returns to the river, federal fishery managers all but shut down this year’s commercial fishing season – a death knell to trollers struggling to make boat payments and keep up with repairs.

In the months since, politicians throughout the region have rushed to find solutions, offering part-time work, loans and direct cash payouts for displaced fishermen.

What everyone wants and what no one could do – at least not in one summer – is fix the Klamath River.

Each of the diverse groups that relies on the Klamath has its own solutions. The farmers say the federal government should do a better job of managing water, and that everyone else needs to be more realistic about how much water was there even when times were good. The Indian tribes say the farmers should use less water. The environmentalists say the dams should be torn out. The dams’ owner says that won’t do any good. The fishermen want to ramp up hatchery production and take the Klamath stocks out of consideration altogether.

Consider a few of the varying perspectives:

• Kandra, president of the Klamath Water Users Association, points out that only 40 percent of the river lies east of the Cascade mountain range.

The real issue is that the Klamath River is front-loaded, he says. Farms, development and logging impacts are all at the start of the river, not the middle or end, as they are on the Columbia or the Willamette.

Kandra contends that the system shouldn’t be managed for a single species – salmon – and that what farmers have done hasn’t changed much.

“The water isn’t there,” he says. “The water was never there. It’s real easy to focus on a farmer and say you’re the problem.”

• Jeff Mitchell is a member of the Klamath Tribes and the head of the Intertribal Fish and Water Commission, which represents the four tribes that have water interests on the Klamath.

Mitchell says the tribes’ problems began 90 years ago, when the government dammed the river. He says the tribes were promised fish ladders that never materialized.

Now the wocus plants Indians grind into a cracked-wheat substance, and the c’wam and salmon that gave them protein, are in short supply.

Why is the Klamath so disturbed? Because man’s impacts here are severe, says Mitchell.

“When fish start going belly-up, the river tells you something’s wrong here,” he says. “What I know is I have no fish. I can’t get wocus even if I wanted it. But some folks are able to get what they need. There’s a big disparity there, period.”

The solution is multifaceted, Mitchell says: Redistribute some of the water that’s now grossly over-allocated to farmers, restore the health of the Klamath’s tributaries and the shallow lakes that feed it, manage upland forests so that they don’t dump so much sediment into the water, manage ranches so animal waste doesn’t pollute the basin – and remove at least some of the dams.

• Jim McCarthy is an Ashland-based consultant for the Oregon Natural Resources Council and EarthJustice, two nonprofits that have advocated for change on the Klamath.

He sums up the problem this way: “There’s been too much water promised to too many different interests. Right now, that means we have a river that’s dying.”

McCarthy scoffs at the notion that agricultural practices haven’t changed much. When the Klamath Project started in the basin, farmers diverted as little as 45,000 acre feet of water per year, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. Now it’s up to 500,000. Government power subsidies in the basin have kept prices at six-tenths of a cent per kilowatt of electricity (lower than they were in 1917) vs. the 5 1/2 to 6 cents other Oregon farmers pay today.

The newest problem with water allocation is below ground, he adds. Faced with restrictions on what they can pull from surface water, farmers have turned to underground aquifers. Levels have dropped between 20 and 30 feet per year, he said.

“Now, even with a huge snowpack in the mountains, it drains off and you don’t get the inflows in the lake because the ground sucked it up,” McCarthy says. “Seventy-five percent of the inflow from upper Klamath Lake is groundwater. And the Oregon Water Resources Commission is still giving away new permits.”

• Then there’s the power company perspective. Dave Kvamme is a spokesman for PacifiCorp, which runs the Klamath’s five dams.

On average, those dams produce electricity for about 70,000 homes each year, Kvamme says. They’re up for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2007, which has prompted a regional debate about whether removal will help salmon as much as it could hurt electricity rates.

Kvamme says that the lower four dams do block passage of fish, but that removing them wouldn’t help the fisheries much. “Plus, there are tremendous environmental impacts that would last for years and years if you were to remove those dams.”

The company proposes to leave the dams where they are, and trap and transport thousands of fish to healthier watersheds.

• Charleston’s Jeff Reeves is a salmon fisherman – not a farmer, biologist, conservationist or Indian tribe member. But in the past year, he’s had to understand the perspectives of all of them, and find a way to keep making his own living.

He says the majority of Oregon fishermen don’t blame farmers for the river’s problems. In fact, the two groups have been meeting in recent months to come up with common solutions. And he doesn’t necessarily believe dam removal will be a good thing for salmon. “Some of us think if the dams are removed, the river will become a dry creek bed in the summer,” he says.

Fellow fisherman Scott Cook says two things need to happen: The Klamath should be removed in its entirety from the formula that federal fishery managers use to set seasons. And hatchery runs should be restored to the levels of past years, a move that could boost the river’s salmon runs.

“All we want to do is see fish,” Cook says. “We want the farmers to be able to farm and for fish to go back in the river.”


Winston Ross can be reached at (541) 902-9030 or rgcoast@oregonfast.net.

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