More Water for Klamath to Protect Salmon

Sacramento Bee – 11/29/07

By David Whitney

WASHINGTON – A National Research Council report Wednesday supported more water being released down the Klamath River to protect salmon runs, siding with authors of a 2006 study that critics said the Bush administration tried to suppress.

Environmentalists hailed the report as “a major victory.”

“The science that fish need water is becoming clearer than some people believe,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

But the research council report also found fault with two recent Klamath River scientific studies, including the one from 2006, saying they examine in detail portions of the complex river system but miss the complete picture of why it’s in such crisis.

“Science is being done in bits and pieces,” said University of South Carolina geography professor William L. Graf, chairman of the 13-member review committee.

The Klamath, once the third most productive salmon river on the West Coast, in recent dry years has been a battleground over water and the Endangered Species Act, pitting farmers relying on irrigation in the upper basin in Southern Oregon against salmon fishermen enduring economic hardship because of disastrous runs.

In 2001, water to irrigators was cut to provide more for fish. The next year, with irrigation supplies restored, more than 30,000 adult salmon died after being infected by pathogens thriving in the warm, shallow lower river.

Since those divisive days, the two competing reports have been released – one by the federal Bureau of Reclamation in 2005 projecting what river flows might look like if upper basin irrigation wasn’t a factor, and another in 2006 sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs looking at how much water should flow down the river to keep fish healthy.

The council report found fault with both studies but felt that the conclusions of the Indian Affairs-funded study conducted by Thomas Hardy of Utah State University should be adopted anyway.

“The recommended flow regimes offer improvements over existing monthly flows,” the report said.

The flows proposed by Hardy, depending on precipitation levels and time of year, could amount to as much as twice the volume of water now being released from Iron Gate Dam, the lowest of the Klamath dams.

The new report by the research council, an arm of the National Academies of Science, is not likely to result in any immediate changes by the Bureau of Reclamation, which tried to downplay its significance. “There’s nothing in here that provides compelling reasons to change our operations,” said bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken in Sacramento.

The report’s release comes as negotiations between fishermen, irrigators, environmentalists, Indian tribes and others to strike a deal on competing Klamath water demands are in their final stages. Separate talks also are occurring with Portland-based PacifCorp, owner of the hydroelectric dams, on knocking them down and reconnecting the river.

Spain said the research council’s findings were certain to be factors in the ongoing negotiations and could influence biologists’ findings this spring as the 2008 irrigation season opens.

The 172-page report raises some of the same concerns of critics of the settlement talks – that important tributaries of the Klamath, particularly the Scott and Shasta rivers in Northern California where irrigation withdrawals are heavy, are being ignored.

Graf said his research team was told that the tributaries were left out of government studies for “political reasons,” adding, “It was not a decision a researcher interested in science would make.”

But with three branches of the Interior Department handling competing interests on the Klamath – irrigation by Reclamation, Indian fishing by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and endangered species by the Fish and Wildlife Service – Graf said his team believes that what is needed is independent and comprehensive research free from politics.

According to Spain and others, the Hardy study itself nearly fell victim to politics and Reclamation’s efforts to “kill it.” Hardy didn’t go that far but described a convoluted process that resulted in several years of delay.

Begun in 1998, Hardy released a draft in 2002 but was not permitted to finish it. He said in a telephone interview that he was told by Reclamation that it had provided data to him that it did not have permission to use. The agency then held up giving him the money to develop replacement data.

A dozen California House members sent a letter to Gale Norton, then the Interior secretary, in 2003 demanding the release of the money and completion of the report to avoid another “catastrophic fish kill.”

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who led the effort to complete the Hardy report, cheered the NRC’s support of it Wednesday. “This report is further confirmation that increased water flows are a crucial element to the restoration of threatened salmon,” Thompson said in a statement.