Coastal voices: As it stands, river pact won’t protect fish
Opinion article on the draft Klamath settlement proposal.
By Steve Pedery and Bob Hunter
April 03, 2008
Triplicate reporter Michelle Ma’s recent series on the Klamath Basin (“The Future of the Klamath”) makes clear that the long history of water battles in the West is far from resolved. Ma’s most recent installment highlights the continued controversy over the proposed “Klamath Settlement Agreement.”
Oregon Wild and WaterWatch oppose the “proposed settlement” (released Jan. 15, 2008) because it contains water guarantees for irrigators that put Klamath River salmon at risk, locks in harmful commercial agricultural practices on two of the nation’s premier national wildlife refuges, and as yet contains no agreement for removal of dams from the Klamath River.
We did not reach this conclusion lightly. Our organizations have spent 20 years advocating for fish and wildlife in the Klamath Basin. We’ve gone to court to restore water flows in the Klamath River and worked with Congress to try and reduce the damaging effects of commercial agricultural on Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges. In 2002, we worked to enact U.S. Senate legislation to reduce water demand and resolve the problems in the Klamath Basin.
Though our organizations joined settlement negotiations with PacifiCorp in 2004, Oregon Wild and WaterWatch were later evicted from discussions when we voiced our disagreement with a settlement framework that guaranteed water for agribusiness without similar assurances for salmon, and locked in commercial agricultural development on wildlife refuges
Because settlement-backers are willing to sacrifice important conservation values to secure Bush support for dam removal, they have crafted a deal that will not resolve conflicts in the basin. Water in the basin is severely over-promised. Giving ironclad guarantees of water to irrigators without providing minimum, science-based flows for the survival of salmon, will not resolve the basin’s water conflicts. Even if dams are eventually removed, recovering Klamath River salmon runs will still hinge on providing them with the water they need to thrive.
The settlement is also a bad deal for wildlife. While backers spin the agreement as providing more water for the refuges, fine print ensures irrigation will still receive top priority for water in drought years at the expense of wildlife. Worse, the deal would also continue harmful commercial agricultural activity on 22,000 acres of Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges for another 50 years.
There are good pieces to this settlement, such as provisions to increase scientific research and environmental monitoring, provide funding for fish habitat restoration, and provide some upper basin water demand reduction. These benefits are offset by provisions harmful to conservation values, special-interest handouts, and the fact that the settlement still contains no agreement to remove dams. Furthermore, to get dam removal, an agreement with PacifiCorp is needed, but the controversial, anti-conservation terms in the settlement proposal are dividing salmon advocates at a time when a unified front is needed with PacifiCorp.
A truly balanced plan for restoration of Klamath River salmon runs must start by bringing the demand for water for irrigation back into balance with what nature can safely supply. The Klamath needs a voluntary demand reduction program that works with farmers to buy back water rights for irrigation and retire them, so that salmon and wildlife can receive the water they need to survive. We must also phase out the practice of leasing land on Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges for private commercial agricultural operations, both to reduce the demand for water and restore water-cleansing wetlands. Finally, we need a real plan for the removal of the lower four Klamath River dams.
If they are serious about a settlement to protect fish and wildlife, settlement-backers will step back and take pause. Instead of rushing to lock in a deeply flawed proposal, they might realize that in 10 months America will have a new president, and the sacrifices made in the current proposal may no longer be needed.
Steve Pedery is the Conservation Director for Oregon Wild, an organization that has been involved in Klamath Basin fish and wildlife conservation efforts for two decades.
Bob Hunter is Senior Staff Attorney for WaterWatch, a conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring streamflows for the fish, wildlife and people who depend on healthy rivers.
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