Klamath River clean-up takes a step forward


On January 4th the EPA announced that it had adopted a clean-up plan for the California portion of the Klamath River Basin. Known officially as a TMDL (an acronym for total maximum daily load, or the total amount of pollution a water body can handle in one day without exceeding legal limits), the clean-up plan was previously approved by the State of California. Its publication brings to end litigation begun in the 1990s which led to the adoption of pollution clean-up plans for 17 Northwest California rivers and streams.  I represented one of the organizations in the litigation and I've been involved as a stakeholder in the development of Klamath River Basin TMDL cleanup plan.

This type of cleanup plan is the main method under the Clean Water Act for cleaning up what are called “non-point sources” of pollution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, non-point sources include urban stormwater run-off and agricultural pollution (dairy waste, livestock waste and irrigation return flows). They are the #1 reason at least 40 percent of the US rivers, lakes, and estuaries that have been surveyed are not clean enough to meet basic uses such as fishing or swimming. Returning US waters to the point that they are “fishable and swimmable” is a major goal of the Clean Water Act, which was adopted in the 1970s.

While federal and state officials and many environmentalists lauded the Klamath clean-up plan, others urged caution. The Klamath River TMDL approved today identifies agricultural operations as the #1 source of Klamath River pollution and such sources have proven very difficult to bring into compliance with clean water laws. The main problem is that, while the Clean Water Act requires development of TMDL Plans, the federal law lacks an enforcement mechanism to make states implement the plans. 


Agricultural waste-water is pumped into Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge and eventually to the Klamath River


In California, however, the state’s own clean water act requires development not only of a TMDL but also adoption of an implementation plan. The implementation plan for the Klamath River was adopted by the State of California in September of 2010. 

Roughly 40 percent of the Klamath River is located in Oregon, and - as the TMDL documents - much of the agricultural pollution found in the Klamath River originates there. Oregon has released a draft TMDL for the Upper Klamath River Basin and EPA expects to adopt that plan next January. But unlike California, Oregon does not provide a mechanism for implementing TMDL clean-up plans. Instead that state relies on voluntary compliance via farm and ranch plans overseen by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

A recent attempt by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to put teeth into Oregon TMDLs was beaten back by agricultural interests. Nationwide, the agriculture industry resists regulation by environmental agencies. The industry has been successful in most parts of the country in having environmental compliance authority transferred to agencies it considers friendly toward agriculture. Environmentalists claim these agencies do not have the will to enforce environmental laws and regulations.

At the federal level, farmers and ranchers prefer the Natural Resource Conservation Service which many environmentalists see as a “captured agency” whose main allegiance is to the agricultural producer rather than to the environment.

The transfer of non-point Clean Water Act authority to agencies which are soft on agriculture may be one reason none of the nation’s highest profile and longest standing water quality restoration plans have been successful. Whether the focus is clean-up of Chesapeake Bay, the Florida Everglades or the Great Lakes, optimistic clean-up statements like those heard these days on the Klamath have proven grossly overstated. Clean-up of agricultural pollution in these regions has been elusive and partial at best. 

The Klamath River at Orleans - Poor water quality is a major factor in the decline of Klamath River salmon fisheries

While some Klamath River clean water champions are among those praising the Klamath clean-up plan, most are not celebrating. They know that the struggle for a “fishable and swimmable” Klamath River will continue as do efforts to clean-up many other US water bodies. The struggle takes place in countless meetings and over items such as the operative language included or omitted from a host of sub-plans, waivers, waste discharge requirements and permits.

Large national groups declare that the battle is over and the struggle won when clean-up plans are adopted. They harvest their press clips and move on. But grassroots Klamath River activists – like their counterparts across the US - know that when the plan is adopted their work has only just begun. It is these grassroots activists – most of whom are volunteers – who will supply the muscle and the will agency bureaucrats need to translate the Klamath clean-up plan into real improvement in Klamath River water quality.

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and program development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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