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Water in Bad Shape When it Leaves Project
Felice Pace, K-Falls Herald & News Editorial
May 24, 2006

Felice Pace
The Author Felice Pace lives on the California coast near where the Klamath River empties into the Pacific Ocean. For many years was conservation director for the Klamath Forest Alliance. He now volunteers with Klamath Riverkeeper, a program of the Klamath Forest Alliance. The opinions in this commentary are his own.

The Herald and News editorial board treats assertions and press releases from the Klamath Water Users Association as gospel. In contrast, even peer-reviewed scientific reports indicating that Klamath Reclamation Project operations damage the environment and downstream interests are treated with skepticism.

Klamath Project water users are sacred cows at the H&N. Like cows in Hindu India, these sacred cows can do what they please without fear of criticism by the Upper Basin's only daily newspaper.

The latest blind assertions appeared in editorials April 16 and May 7.

In the editorial “Power rates are part of the big picture,” Opinion Editor Pat Bushey, Editor Steve Miller and Publisher Heidi Wright claim water used by irrigators is “returned to the Klamath River cleaner and colder than it was when it was taken from Upper Klamath Lake.” The assertion is repeated in, “Don't put onus on Project for saving salmon,” which claimed that in 2005, Project irrigators were “returning water to the river cleaner and colder than it was when it was taken out.”

If the last assertion is true, it would be the first year in decades that water returned to the river through the Klamath Straits was cleaner than the receiving water.

In its water bank, the Bureau of Reclamation uses taxpayer funds to buy water from the Tule Lake Irrigation District wells (wells paid for by California taxpayers).

If the Bureau moves that water through the Straits to meet downstream flow requirements, that water could be cleaner than the waters of Lake Ewauna for a month or two of the year.

The usual situation is a stark contrast to that possibility. Lake Ewauna water quality is bad. Poor quality water flowing from Link River Dam is worsened by the manner Columbia Plywood operates. Years of storing logs in the Lake resulted in a massive amount of bark on the lake bottom. As it decomposes, bark sucks oxygen from the water. The result is water which often does not contain enough oxygen for fish to survive.

The Klamath Straits enters Lake Ewauna farther downstream. The Straits carries most of the wastewater from the Project except the water which is consumed. If KWUA's claim - also repeated as gospel by H&N editors - that irrigation only consumes 3 percent of the water diverted - it must be true that 97 percent of the diverted water is returned to the river.

So what is the quality of the agricultural waste water returned to the Klamath River via the Straits? According to the Oregon Department of Water Quality, that water contains excessive nutrients, has excessively high temperatures and high pH. The polluted nature of Klamath Straits water is confirmed by the Bureau's monitoring reports. These are available to the H&N editors.

It's usually worse

These reports confirm that Straits water is ordinarily of significantly poorer quality than Lake Ewauna water. During the critical late-summer period, the Straits represents about 25 percent of the flow in this stretch of river. At this time of year, Straits water quality is sometimes so bad the pollution is transformed into pure ammonia - toxic to all aquatic life. Ironically, this most highly polluted water looks crystal clear - one reason H&N editors may have been duped into believing it is of good quality.

Project water flowing through the Klamath Straits to the river was not always so bad.

In the 1960s and 1970s, tile drains were installed in the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath areas. This increased crop yield by facilitating rapid movement of water, fertilizer and pesticides through the soil. Water use jumped dramatically, as did levels of nutrient pollution as fertilizers and natural nutrients leached rapidly through soil into the drains. Water use and pollution increased so much that the Bureau had to put another set of pumps on the Klamath Straits to handle the increase in agricultural waste water.

There is good news on water quality within the Project, however.

In preparing for clean-up plans for the Lost River and Klamath Straits, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been studying the impact of refuge wetlands on quality. It found that permanent marshes on Lower Klamath refuge significantly clean the water they receive. Seasonal marshes also clean water - but not as well.

These studies suggest how the Project could improve the quality of the water it uses and returns to the Straits and Klamath River. Filling in the deep drains would have a significant positive impact and reduce Project water use without reducing acres farmed. Alternatively, using settling ponds before returning water to streams can remove up to 50 percent of the nutrients; passing the water through a permanent marsh could reduce nutrient pollution - the Project's largest pollution problem - up to 90 percent.

These techniques are used successfully in many areas, including nearby in the Shasta Valley. If applied within the Upper Basin, it would be entirely feasible for the Klamath Project and other Upper Basin agricultural operations to come into compliance with water quality standards. These standards were established to protect all beneficial uses of water, as well as the public's interest in clean water.

Benefits enormous

Cleaning up Project pollution would pay numerous benefits, not only downstream but in the Upper Basin. For example, cleaner water likely would reduce avian botulism. This would bring more duck hunters and bird watchers. The technology is simple and practical. All that is needed is the will to do it. Unfortunately, the Klamath Water Users Association's insistence that no land in the Project currently farmed be turned into treatment marsh precludes such solutions.

Will Klamath Project compliance with the Clean Water Act become the Upper Basin's next divisive crisis? So long as H&N editors and government bureaucrats treat the Project as a sacred cow, and KWUA as all knowing, it is unlikely that the irrigation aristocracy which runs the KWUA and dominates the Project will modify its position. H&N editors should stop repeating association's assertions as fact and demand responsible behavior from all players in the Klamath Basin.

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.