New Hope for the Klamath

Fall colors on the Klamath. Photo courtesy Craig Nielson/Shasta Trout.


By Brian Johnson

In the Klamath Basin, it’s one darned thing after another. Another extremely dry water year. Returning fall-run salmon likely to meet lethal water temperatures and poor water quality in the lower river, raising the real possibility of another massive fish kill. And in the upper basin, ranchers having their irrigation water turned off for more than 96,000 acres of range and farmland to protect senior water rights holders downstream under the newly-final water rights adjudication.

It's hard to avoid a sense of deja vu. In 2002, when we had similar drought conditions and strong salmon returns, as many as 70,000 fall-run Chinooks died in the lower river due to low flows.

But recent developments offer some hope for the Klamath and its legendary salmon and steelhead runs, in both the short and long term.

A few weeks ago, in a move cheered by TU and our Klamath partners, a federal judge allowed releases of extra water down the Trinity River into the Klamath River, to prevent another salmon die-off. We’re not out of the woods yet, but thus far the action seems to have helped this year's bumper crop of fall run Chinooks -- and to have staved off calamity for the commercial salmon fishing industry.

And in July of this year, a team of legislators from Oregon, led by Senator Ron Wyden and including Senator Jeff Merkley, Congressman Greg Walden, and Governor John Kitzhaber, convened a task force of interested parties to resolve remaining issues in the basin so that legislation can be introduced to authorize the two Klamath Basin agreements that provide a comprehensive, bi-partisan solution to this iconic river's water challenges.

In the meantime, the Klamath lurches from one crisis to another. The next may occur at the basin’s famous wildlife refuges, which have been without water because of the dry summer and because the refuges have relatively junior water rights.

Unfortunately, such catastrophes are nothing new in the Klamath River basin.

In 2001, water to the federal Klamath Reclamation Project was abruptly cut off for farmers on 170,000 acres of land, triggering widespread economic distress; smaller water cutoffs occurred in at least six other years. In 2002, the government responded to another dry year by delivering water for irrigation but cutting flows to the lower river just as adult salmon returned to spawn. That led to the aforementioned fish kill – the largest in U.S. history. As a result, the commercial salmon fishing industry in California and most of Oregon was completely shut down in 2006 and partially closed in 2005 and 2007. Tribes dependent on fish and river resources suffered even more.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and the leadership demonstrated recently by Senator Ron Wyden and the region’s Congressional delegation give Klamath basin stakeholders hope that we can soon break this cycle of crisis.

The delegation asked the task force to build on the work that has already been completed with the 2010 Klamath agreements, which more than 40 parties signed, but also to go farther. Specifically, the task force is charged with resolving remaining water sharing issues above Upper Klamath Lake, addressing outstanding issues needed to maintain affordable power, and bringing down the cost to federal taxpayers. Senator Wyden and the delegation stated that they will use the task force’s recommendations as the basis for drafting legislation to authorize the parts of the agreements that require federal legislation.

Our deadline is September of this year. That’s an ambitious charge, but the delegation’s sense of urgency is welcomed by the task force members. TU is at the table on behalf of our tens of thousands of Oregon and California members and people who come from across the nation to the Klamath Basin to fish for its incredible steelhead, salmon, and wild trout. We played a major role in working out the two bipartisan agreements that the task force is building on now, and we won’t rest until a solution is implemented.

That time has arrived. With this year’s drought, everyone who depends on water from the river has experienced their own crisis: recreational and commercial fishermen, tribes, farmers in the Klamath Reclamation Project, and this year the “off project” (i.e., not Reclamation Project) water users above Upper Klamath Lake.

Perhaps this is why High Country News has reported that even staunch opponents of the Klamath agreements now believe settlement is the best hope for the region’s water woes. [subscription required].


Brian Johnson, TU’s California State Director, represents Trout Unlimited in the Klamath agreement negotiations and is a member of the task force.


For more information, see Brian’s recent interview on Jefferson Public Radio and the testimony submitted to Senator Wyden’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee:


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