Viewpoints: Klamath Pact Doesn’t Protect the River Fishery

Viewpoints: Klamath Pact Doesn’t Protect the River Fishery

By John DeVoe
Special to the Sacramento Bee

October 2, 2010

John DeVoe, an attorney and executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon, is responding to the Sept. 25 Viewpoints article “Klamath restoration plan deserves congressional support” which stated: “The agreements would balance water use in the basin in a manner that gives agriculture greater water security while enhancing flows in the river at critical times of year for salmon.”

While WaterWatch of Oregon supports Klamath River dam removal and has spent decades working toward a sustainable future for the Klamath Basin, we have joined several Oregon and California conservation groups and at least one Native American tribe in opposing the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement as unscientific, unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible. We believe the Klamath’s natural resources and communities deserve better.

Proponents of the agreement frequently spout platitudes about the deal but ignore its critical shortcomings when claiming it will resolve the Klamath’s fundamental problem – competition over water. Because the deal fails to balance the water budget in the basin, it guarantees the conflict will continue.

Though it promises specific water deliveries for irrigation, the agreement fails to guarantee any minimum flows for fish and fails to permanently reduce irrigation to a level that will produce stream flows consistent with the best available science, tribal trust responsibility and Endangered Species Act requirements.

The agreement fails to meet the lowest ecological standards. The deal’s irrigation water guarantees would regularly cause stream flows to drop below minimum ecological base flows needed for fish survival. Projections indicate high-risk stream flows throughout August for 48 percent of future years, throughout September for 25 percent of years, throughout October and November for at least 98 percent of all future years. Overall, stream flows are projected to drop to dangerous and potentially lethal levels an average of four months each year.

To address this shortcoming, supporters propose a vague drought plan echoing previous Klamath water banks. Judging from history, leasing water to bring flows above the ecological danger zone would cost an average of $5 million a year or $250 million over the deal’s time span – an extraordinary price to maintain fish conditions at barest survival levels. Flows sufficient for actual salmon recovery would cost more.

Moreover, the U.S. Geological Survey found previous Klamath water banking to be unsustainably reliant on groundwater pumping. Because Klamath groundwater and surface water are connected, over time, pumping groundwater to maintain stream flows robs Peter to pay Paul. Fifty years of water banking is neither fiscally nor environmentally sustainable.

Adequate stream flows to meet long-term recovery needs for Klamath salmon and other fish will require reduced water use and better water management. Congress must include concrete, science-based stream flow assurances in emerging federal legislation.

Only then will we have a chance of achieving peace on the river and a sustainable, vibrant future for region’s communities.