Klamath Moves To Second Place On Endangered Rivers List

by Dan Bacher

Dissident Voice

April 15, 2003


American Rivers named the beleaguered Klamath River, where the largest fish kill in U.S. history took place last fall, as number two on its annual list of the nation’s ten most endangered rivers on April 10.


In its annual report, the national environmental group cited “excessive irrigation diversions and hydropower dams that are causing the ecological collapse of the river and its fisheries” for its prominent placement on the list. The list reports “acute threats” to the listed rivers rather than their chronic problems; it is not a list of the nation’s most polluted rivers. Mississippi’s Big Sunflower River was number one on this year’s list.


The Klamath’s movement from number three spot to number two this year was prompted by the die off of over 33,000 salmon last September after the Bush administration delivered  irrigation water to subsidized Klamath Basin farmers at the expense of the river’s fish populations.


“The Klamath River and its fisheries are the real victims when too much irrigation demand chases too little water,” said Rebecca R. Wodders, president of American Rivers. “These chronic water shortages are compounded by the hydropower dams that block many miles of salmon spawning habitat.”


The group hopes to prevent another kill from occurring this season by bringing attention to the river’s current crisis - and to the solutions needed to restore the Klamath.


“Last year’s fish kill was devastating to the Yurok tribe, yet indications are that the Bureau of Reclamation will provide even less water to sustain our fishery during the coming year,” said Sue Masten, Chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe. “The bottom line is that there is not enough water to meet the demand in a dry year or critical dry year. In the case of dry years, the resources of the river should come first.”


The Klamath Basin water crisis is entering its third year and several important decisions looming in the next 12 months could intensify the conflict or lead to improvements, according to American Rivers. In 2001, angry Klamath Basin farmers, supported by the Pacific Legal Foundation and other “wise use” groups, demanded that Gale Norton and the Bush administration provide farmers with irrigation water in a dry year. The Bush administration caved in and sent the water to the fields, paving the way for the massive fish kill in September 2002.


The White House-appointed Klamath River Basin Federal Working Group is expected to report on solutions for this river basin and Congress will take up legislation that proposes to bring water supply and demand back into balance.


On the same day  the report was listed, Congressman Mike Thompson (D-Napa Valley) introduced legislation to attempt to solve the water crisis in the Klamath Basin. Thompson’s legislation, the Klamath River Basin Restoration and Emergency Assistant Act, would allocate $200 million to landowners and tribes throughout the Klamath Basin who participate in water conservation projects.


“The only way we are going to solve this mess is by buying back water rights and reducing the demand for water,” said Wendall Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Defense Council.


Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, reacted to the report by saying that “you can point the fingers wherever you want, but the Bush administration is doing lots of things to make the river a viable fishery.”


McCracken stated that Federal Judge Oliver Wanger, at the Bureau’s request, ruled that in the event of similar conditions on the Klamath as last year, the Bureau would have the ability to release 50,000 acre feet of cold water down the Trinity.


He also cited the establishment of a water bank of 50,000 acre feet of water to benefit Klamath fisheries, under the management of NOAA Fisheries. “We hope that people recognize that we’re trying to meet both the obligations to both the upper and the lower river basins,” said McCracken.


However, Sue Masten dismissed the Bureau’s water banking plan, saying that 

it wouldn’t help alleviate the fishery problems. “The Bureau established water banking last year also and it did not benefit the fish at all,” she said. “Last year’s plan was a recipe for disaster and their plan this year is essentially the same. They’re not using science to make their decisions, but politics.”


Masten emphasized that if the problems of the river’s current water management aren’t addressed, the dramatic decline in coho salmon, a federal and state “endangered” species, will be followed by further declines in the rivers’s fall chinooks, spring chinooks, steelhead and green sturgeon populations.


“In the Yurok way, if one species declines, it is a signal for us to do something seriously different because our goal is to preserve and protect the entire eco-system,” she said. “Everything impacts something else. We all have a responsibility to protect our resources that are left. The days of taking everything just for dollar gain are over.”


“The Yuroks are a fishing people,” she added. “Our spiritual and cultural traditions are intimately tied to the health of the river. The Yuroks have always had a commercial fishery, but we have not been able to subsist on our fishery alone since the arrival of Europeans. At the same time, there is 90 percent poverty rate and 70 percent unemployment on the reservation.”


“While the report is a sad thing, it is also a good thing,” said Masten. “The sport fishermen, commercial fishermen, environmental groups, coastal communities and tribes are all uniting in a common cause to restore the ecosystem, so something good is coming out of last year’s horrific event. “


For more information about the Klamath and other endangered rivers, contact www.americanrivers.org. Through this website, you can also easily send a letter telling your Representative in Congress to support Congressman Thompson’s Klamath River Basin Restoration and Emergency Assistance Act.


Daniel Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical songwriter from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email: danielbacher@hotmail.com




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