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for people who care about the West

Failure of leadership, not a lack of water, dooms the Klamath River


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 temperatures.

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.

The 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.

Tim Holt is an environmental writer who lives in the Mount Shasta region of Northern California.