Klamath's federal agencies map different realities


Maps are no more objective than any other documents. Just look at the ones of the Klamath Basin produced by its two federal landlords.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation portrays the basin as a network of reservoirs and canals designed to deliver water to farms. Since parts of the basin have no natural outlets, areas labeled sumps hold the water until it is pumped into drainage ditches that flow to the Klamath River.

But what Reclamation calls "sumps" the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls refuges, and its maps display habitat types, depths of water and other information related to wildlife.

These very different perspectives made the agencies poor basin-mates for nearly a century. For example, in 1917, the Bureau of Reclamation decided to drain Lower Klamath Lake, even though its own surveys showed that the lakebed's soil was too alkaline to be farmed. The Fish and Wildlife Service, then called the Bureau of Biological Survey, told Reclamation the same thing, but the young and still brash agency regarded the Biological Survey as a joke.

It barged ahead with its project, and as a result, crops failed, the homesteaders went broke and the remaining lake dried up. Dust storms and smoke from burning peat blackened the skies over Klamath Falls and other nearby communities.

It took more than two decades for Reclamation to admit it had made a mistake and to re-flood Lower Klamath Lake. The Fish and Wildlife Service tried to restore some of the basin's wetlands, but the irrigation districts and Reclamation delivered water irregularly, drying up and flooding the refuges according to the needs of agriculture, not wildlife. Reclamation also pushed to open nearly half of another refuge

- Tule Lake - to homesteaders. Congress in 1964 killed the homesteading drive, but animosity between the agencies continued.

What changed, over the years, was the balance of power, as Indian tribes within the basin and downstream along the Klamath River slowly gained political strength, and as the environmental movement criticized federal irrigation projects everywhere. The Fish and Wildlife Service didn't escape unscathed - environmentalists were critical of that agency's concentration on waterfowl for hunting. But in general, a coalition was built to oppose Reclamation and its works.

At the center of these efforts was the Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973 to provide for the conservation of ecosystems essential to endangered fish, wildlife and plants. The Act has forced Reclamation to listen to its sister agency in the Department of Interior. But not closely enough to keep the number of endangered shortnose and Lost River sucker fish from plummeting.

Then, this summer, changes that had been building for decades in the basin snapped into place with the help of a record drought. The Fish and Wildlife Service, with the backing of the National Marine Fisheries Service, used the Endangered Species Act to cut off water to the Klamath Project. Reclamation's farms and the Service's refuges are mostly dry.

Perhaps most important, the Bureau of Reclamation, which literally built today's Klamath Basin, is, for the moment, acting like a different agency. Some of that change has happened because of the growing power of the tribes, environmentalists, and other federal agencies.

But some of it may be due to a change within Reclamation itself. The Bureau began to transform under the Clinton administration, in the early 1990s, when it said that the era of dam building was over. The modern Bureau of Reclamation, the agency announced, is apt to look at Western rivers, lakes and marshes more as ecosystems than as plumbing.

Of course, agencies don't turn on a dime, or even a decade. That the imbalance between the agencies continues is undeniable: The minimal releases from the Klamath Project this summer have virtually all gone to farmers, not the refuges, even though the water is crucial for this fall's bird migration.

But the new world is coming. Ironically, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have a relatively easy time adjusting to it. A century of powerlessness has taught it how to work cooperatively with other agencies. Reclamation must learn these skills through the school of hard knocks, and this year's crisis may prove to be one of its toughest lessons.

Not until its maps of the Klamath Basin look a lot more like those of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will we know that the Bureau has become a new animal.

Robert Wilson, a former HCN intern, is working on a Ph.D. on the history of wildlife refuge management along the Pacific Flyway. He writes from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Robert Wilson

High Country News Classifieds