Now save the Klamath

Now save the Klamath

Eugene Register-Guard
August 11, 2006

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez finally did what he should have done months ago – declare an economic disaster for the West Coast salmon fishing industry that has been dead in the water since the federal government imposed sharp fishing restrictions earlier this year.

Now, Congress and the White House must move swiftly to find the $85 million in appropriations needed to keep afloat a fishing industry that is critical to the future of communities along the Oregon and California coasts.

Even more importantly, they must also make the major investment necessary to fix the real cause of the salmon crisis: a Klamath River that once supported the third-largest salmon runs on the West Coast but has become one of the nation’s most fouled-up waterways.

Congress should make a down payment on that investment by approving and funding the Senate version of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The reauthorization of the federal fisheries law contains an amendment sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that directs the Department of Commerce to complete a fast-track salmon recovery plan for the beleaguered Klamath basin.

The Klamath’s woes are many and complex. Its salmon are being killed by excessive water diversions from the federal irrigation project that provides water to the basin’s farmers, by hydroelectric dams that block migrating salmon and turn the river into an unnaturally warm petri dish for fish-killing algae and bacteria, by unsound logging practices that contribute to erosion, by agricultural runoff, and by the loss of critical wetlands habitat.

Federal disaster aid is essential for fishermen who are at risk of losing their boats and livelihoods – and for the businesses and coastal communities that rely on healthy fisheries for survival. But what they ultimately need is a river that produces bumper crops of healthy salmon.

Gutierrez’s declaration provides reason to hope that the Klamath may overcome many of its troubles. The administration had resisted making the move, in part because it has been reluctant to acknowledge its key role in a massive Klamath fish kill three years ago that led to the current salmon crisis.

Now, there is no longer any need to play the river blame game. Administration officials should work with members of the Northwest congressional delegation, Oregon and California officials, the basin’s Indian tribes, commercial fishermen, farmers, environmentalists and federal fish scientists to rescue the Klamath.

In another potentially major breakthrough, PacifiCorp, the Portland-based utility that owns the four Klamath dams, recently issued a statement that it’s open to the removal of its Klamath dams. With PacifiCorp in the midst of an arduous relicensing process that could result in the company being ordered to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on fish-passage retrofitting, the prospects for removal of the dams have never been brighter.

Congress and the administration have a historic opportunity to save not only the West Coast salmon industry, but the fish and a river that are essential to its survival. They must not let that opportunity pass.

The Klamath can be saved. All it takes it the political will – and vision – to do it.