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Agriculture Must Take Responsibility for Fish Kill
By Felice Pace, Klamath California
August 4, 2005

Your article in the July 21st edition - “Heat blamed for Klamath fish kill” - conforms to a long tradition at the Herald and News - covering up for the failure of Klamath Basin agriculture to control harmful levels of nutrient pollution in the Klamath and Lost Rivers, the Klamath Straits and Upper Klamath Lake. In spite of millions given to irrigators for restoration, water quality in these key waterbodies continues to violate Oregon and California standards. These violations damage “beneficial uses” which means that they cost taxpayers millions and hurt local economies. Also responsible for the failure to control agricultural pollution are those government agencies charged with enforcing water quality laws - the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and California’s North Coast Water Quality Board.

Your article claims that the fish were “apparently the victims of poor water conditions brought on by hot weather.” Hot weather does not create poor water quality. Rather excessively high pollution levels in this portion of the Klamath River when combined with high temperatures result in algae blooms that eat up all the oxygen. The fish then die of asphyxiation or - because of their weakened state - succumb to naturally occurring fish diseases.

Fish kills in the Klamath River Basin are not a rare occurrence. Indeed, kills are recorded in many years and in many locations and other die offs are no doubt not noticed or recorded. Additionally, the fish kills have migrated from the Upper Basin downstream. It now appears that juvenile salmon and steelhead are killed nearly every year when they emerge from their birth streams into the highly polluted section of the Klamath River which stretches from Iron Gate Dam to Seiad Valley or even further.

It would also be a mistake to believe that poor water quality, resulting primarily from uncontrolled agricultural pollution, only impacts fish. People and their recreational pursuits are also at risk. For example, not too long ago it became known that an algae which is toxic to humans has spread to Copco Reservoir on the Klamath. The discovery, however, was not reported by the Herald and News nor by any other media outlet. And to date health officials have not taken action to protect the families and seniors who live around and recreate on this reservoir. I attribute the failure to report important news and the failure to protect the public to the aversion of the local press and local officials to mentioning anything that might require the local agriculture industry to take responsibility for its negative impacts.

Both Oregon and California are currently developing water quality clean up plans for the Klamath and Lost Rivers and for Klamath Lake. But so far the agricultural water quality plans developed are a cruel joke. These plans list best management practices which - if followed - would result in significant reduction in agricultural pollution. But there is no requirement that irrigators implement the practices and there is no monitoring required to determine if the voluntary Ag plans are working. This approach will not result in meaningful clean up of highly polluted Klamath Basin waterbodies.

The tragedy is that the primary pollutants agriculture is discharging into our public waterways can be easily and cheaply controlled. The main pollutants degrading Klamath Basin waters are nutrients. Simply passing post-irrigation water through a small settling pond prior to discharging the water into a stream, river or canal eliminates 50% of the pollution. Small treatment wetlands in such locations can remove up to 90% of nutrients pollutants. Irrigators can build these facilities themselves on the corners of their farms. But irrigators will resist these simple and reasonable measures until the public and public officials demand that they take responsibility for the waste they generate. News media can help by accurately reporting the impacts and causes of pollution - including fish kills - which threaten the environment and public health.

Agriculture - increasingly an industry dominated by fewer and larger farms and farm corporations - has avoided compliance with the Clean Water Act for over 30 years. This is the basic law intended to make our rivers and streams - in the words of the Clean Water Act - “swimmable and drinkable.” Every other industry in America has had to comply with the Act. It is time for agriculture to step up and do its part. It is also high time for the Herald and News to begin accurately reporting on agricultural impacts.

A resident of the Klamath River Basin for 30 years, Felice Pace is former conservation director of the Klamath Forest Alliance, an avid fisherman and a supporter of responsible agriculture.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and as defined under the provisions of "fair use", any copyrighted material herein is distributed without profit or payment for non-profit research and for educational use by our membership.