Klamath Basin pact still has problems

Eureka Times Standard – 3/20/08
By Greg King, executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center

Not long ago, my neighbor said he’d seen me on TV discussing the Northcoast Environmental Center’s opposition to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. He seemed puzzled.

“I thought you guys wanted dam removal,” he said. My heart sank. Of course the NEC wants to tear down four Klamath dams. The NEC is an original proponent of dam removal, as we’ve long worked to restore populations of fish and other wildlife along one of America’s greatest rivers.

We want the dams out to open up more than 300 miles of former salmon and steelhead habitat, and to improve the abysmal water quality currently released by the reservoirs behind the dams. But dam removal is only one step, however significant.

The agreement’s most controversial provision allocates to farmers 330,000 to 340,000 acre-feet of water during dry years, and 385,000 acre-feet in wet years. (An acre-foot is literally that: The amount of water it would take to cover one acre of land a foot deep.

This allocation can be renegotiated only during “extreme drought” years, but this “drought plan” will not be created until after the settlement agreement is completed, one of the many unsettling provisions of the agreement.

Also, this allocation is about 10 percent more than farmers currently get during dry years under court-ordered Endangered Species Act protections.

Two species of salmon (chum and pink) are already extinct on the Klamath. Spring Chinook runs are at dangerously low levels. Klamath Coho salmon are listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act. Dam removal alone is not enough to prevent further declines. Scientists tell us that the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement may not provide enough water for salmon to avoid extinction, owing to significant allocations to farmers.

The NEC supports farmers. They provide our nation with food, and in many places productive farmland can forestall development and preserve open space. So we hope farmers in the upper Klamath basin are able to secure adequate water supplies, but not at the expense of salmon.

This occurred in 2002, when farmers received 400,000 acre-feet of water and 68,000 adult salmon died in the lower Klamath. Would the agreement prevent such an excessive allocation? Probably. Would an allocation of 330,000 acre-feet also be excessive during even dryer years? Good question.

Last year the NEC hired Dr. Bill Trush of McBain and Trush, and Greg Kamman of Kamman Hydrology, to examine the complex scientific modeling of flow allocations contained in the Agreement. Trush’s primary conclusion was that once dams come out and ag gets its water, there still might not be enough water in the river for fish.

Last month the NEC again hired Trush, this time to create an alternative path that scientists working on the agreement could follow to better ensure fish recovery on the Klamath River.

In that paper, Trush wrote, “The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement relegates salmon and the Klamath River ecosystem to the status of junior water users, while Upper Basin irrigators become the senior water users. This premise squarely places onto the salmon and the river ecosystem any risk inherent in the conclusion that flows contained in the agreement will actually provide enough water for recovery of the species.” (The Trush and Kamman reports are available at http://www.yournec.org.

At the same time, the NEC’s Board of Directors hosted a phone conference with Dr. Thomas Hardy, associate director of the Utah Water Research Laboratory at Utah State University. Hardy’s analyses of Klamath River hydrology are considered to be the best available science for evaluating the river’s fishery.

Hardy confirmed Trush’s conclusions: “Agriculture gets all the guarantees, and everything related to the environment is left to somewhat vague processes and committees.”

In dry years, said Hardy, agriculture in the upper basin will be “taking too much water from the system.” An acceptable agreement, he said, would “guarantee flows for fish first, then other water uses.”

The NEC’s rejection last month of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement was intended to make it better, and to aid the recovery of the entire Klamath River ecosystem.

We are still negotiating. Already the NEC has spent some $60,000 to review the science and legalities contained in the 256-page agreement, and we’re not done yet.

If we agree to support the settlement, it will be because dams will come down and fish will get the water they need to thrive. That’s our promise to our members, and to the fish.

Greg King, executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center, lives in Arcata.