The Klamath River: Will dam removal be enough to help fish?

The Klamath River: Will dam removal be enough to help fish?

By Bob Hunter and Ani Kame’enui
September 09, 2009

In a few short weeks, Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River in southern Oregon will be no more. The demolition of this concrete barrier, long recognized as the biggest fish killer on the Rogue, will have immediate and powerful results for salmon.

Just a few miles south, negotiations drag on in the hopes of removing four dams on another Oregon river — the Klamath. The proposed date for their removal, should parties strike a final deal, is more than 10 years away, sometime after the year 2020. However, when and if the dams do come down, Klamath salmon may still be out of luck.

Both the Rogue and the Klamath are trending toward a future without massive dams. Why is one set to thrive while the other may face more turmoil? The Oregonian hit the spigot on the head in an Aug. 24 editorial (“The Klamath: A river dying for movement”). Water.

More specifically, how much will flow in these rivers if the dams are gone, and how much will continue to be drawn out to feed thirsty commercial agricultural interests upstream?

The Rogue has its share of irrigation withdrawals, but nothing quite like the massive, government-run Klamath Irrigation Project. There, high-desert fields are fed with 400,000 acre-feet of water each year. It was these excessive water withdrawals in the drought year of 2002 that caused the largest fish kill in the history of the West.

That year, up to 70,000 salmon washed up dead on the banks of the Klamath River, poisoned by hot, disease-filled waters drawn too low by irrigation diversions. Low flows were at the root of the fish kill.

The tragic scene from 2002 was all part of political machinations orchestrated from the White House by then Vice President Dick Cheney. Sadly, the same sort of water politics that caused the 2002 kill are being used today to guarantee too much water for irrigation at the expense of salmon.

Of course, we know that fish need water to survive, and the best available science tells us we need to give them more than negotiators plan to provide. Otherwise we could see a repeat of the 2002 disaster.

Insufficient water flow for fish isn’t the only environmental trade-off made in the current negotiations. The 100-year-old Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and its neighboring refuge, Tule Lake, are being used as trading stock in this year’s Klamath deal. Large swaths of these refuges — originally protected to provide habitat for unique wildlife — are currently plowed under each year to grow potatoes and onions. This harmful practice would continue unabated for another 50 years in the current draft settlement.

These refuges are at the heart of the Pacific flyway and provide a haven for thousands of migratory birds. The Klamath refuge system supports a world-renowned bird-watching mecca, an industry that pumps tens of billions of dollars into the national economy.

As negotiations drag on, we must ask the tough questions. Will dam removal alone be enough for Klamath salmon? Can eagles, egrets and geese afford the continued destruction of some of their most critical wetland habitat for 50 more years?

In the end, we can find a balance that removes dams without sacrificing needed river flows and national wildlife refuges. For too long, the needs of salmon and wildlife have taken a back seat. It’s time to write a new chapter in the story of the Klamath.

Ani Kame’enui is Klamath campaign coordinator for Oregon Wild. Bob Hunter is a staff attorney for WaterWatch of Oregon.

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