Unfortunately, it’s business as usual in the Klamath River watershed, where all the conditions are in place for yet another fish kill similar to the one that claimed at least 34,000 salmon in the fall of 2002 (HCN, 6/23/03: Sound science goes sour). It’s another dry year, with the same low river flows, and water temperatures are in the unhealthy 70-73 degree range, well above what’s considered ideal for spawning fall chinook.
The size of the fish kill this time around may not be as
high, only because there was a massive kill of juvenile salmon back
in June 2000 — also due to low river flows and high
And so it goes, year after year: The
Klamath lurches toward yet another crisis as the tragic stalemate
in the region continues. Endless conflicts among farmers,
fishermen, Indian tribes and environmentalists stem from the
central fact that the Klamath Basin is a high desert region with
too much demand on its limited supply of water. The only
beneficiaries of these conflicts have been lawyers — and the
biologists who’ve churned out study after study, with such
varying conclusions that, no matter where you stand on Klamath
water allocations, you can find a study to match your views.
The Bush administration, despite repeated promises that a
long-term solution is just around the corner, is clearly
floundering in this polarized environment. It has not been able to
rise above its gut-level conservatism to become a conciliator among
the warring parties in the region. Instead, it has taken the easy
route, forming a natural alliance with the hard-core element in the
farming community, those who believe that any permanent reduction
in farmland is the beginning of the end for Klamath agriculture.
This unfortunate pairing has prompted the Bush administration to
turn its back on one of the most promising long-term solutions to
the chronic water shortage: Buying out farmers who are willing,
even eager, to sell their land. Last time I checked, there were at
least 50 willing to sell their land for a fair price. Another
promising proposal, likewise rejected by the current
administration, calls for phasing out leasehold farming on the
Klamath’s wildlife refuges. Together, these two programs
would go a long way toward resolving the region’s chronic
water shortages, cutting an excess demand of 200,000 acre-feet per
year to just under 100,000 acre-feet.
Given the lack of
leadership from the Bush administration, a solution to the Klamath
dilemma may ultimately rest with the courts, as it did in the
conflict over Trinity River water between the Hoopa Indians in
northwest California and the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.
After a federal appeals court ruled in their favor last July, the
Hoopas will see increased river flows to benefit their fishery,
while the farmers will be out on the open market, looking elsewhere
for 5 to 10 percent of their irrigation water. Klamath farmers,
take note: In its Trinity ruling, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals,
the highest federal court in the Western United States, said that
the minimum requirements for a healthy river and its fishery take
precedence over the needs of other water users.
dispute over Klamath flows is heading into court this fall, in a
breach-of-trust suit by the Yurok Indians against the federal
government. They argue, as did the Hoopas, that the reduced flows
in the river rob them of the minimum fish populations they need for
their sustenance. If the Yuroks ultimately prevail, it will be
tough on the Klamath farmers, who, unlike the corporate
agribusinesses of the San Joaquin Valley, do not have deep pockets.
Indeed, many of them are already facing bankruptcy, due to falling
prices for staple crops like potatoes, grains and onions.
Only the federal government has the authority and the resources to
work out a long-term solution to the Klamath imbroglio, one that
will not leave one group or another in the lurch. By refusing to
work out agreements with those willing to sell their land —
and thus gradually phase out farming on the refuges — the
administration virtually guarantees that there will be personal
tragedies and bankruptcies in the farming community in the near
future. Failure to find a reasonable solution now only increases
the likelihood of a tragic day of reckoning ahead, when the
region’s farmers learn, as their counterparts in the San
Joaquin did, that they can’t keep draining a river and
decimating its fishery.