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Fish Benefit of a Klamath Pact Questioned
By David Whitney, Sacramento Bee
December 09, 2007

As groups plan to vote on water deal for the ecologically troubled Klamath River, new studies say salmon may get shorted.

Klamath River
As groups plan to vote on water deal for the ecologically troubled Klamath River, new studies say salmon may get shorted.

WASHINGTON Environmentalists, Indian tribes, fishermen and farmers have been meeting in private for months trying to come up with a deal to turn the battle over Klamath River water into a showcase for cooperation and restoration.

Now, just as the 26 organizations involved in the secret talks are about to vote on whether to endorse the nearly completed pact, new studies raise doubts about whether it will send enough water down the ailing 263-mile-long river to lift its salmon runs from the brink of extinction.

No one disputes that the river is killing fish.

Recent runs have been so poor that Congress sent $60 million earlier this year to help relieve a financial disaster for fishermen, the result of a massive fish kill in 2002. Troubling signs now are emerging on the river's tributaries, including the Shasta River, where scientists are puzzled about why hundreds of thousands of small fingerlings die before they reach the Pacific Ocean.

Neither is there any dispute over the leading cause.

Four small hydroelectric dams operated by PacifiCorp cut the river system in half, diverting so much water to high desert irrigation in southern Oregon that in dry years there isn't enough for both farmers and fish, let alone to flush out parasites and diseases downstream of the dams.

Parallel talks are under way with the Portland-based utility to remove the dams. The proposed deal focuses on amicably resolving other issues, including how much water farmers get in the upper basin and how much is sent down the river, on the assumption the dams are coming down.

It is an expensive proposal intended to bring peace to the river system for 60 years. Over the first dozen years, it calls for more than $900 million in federal spending twice what taxpayers are now spending.

"I think we're on the brink of totally redefining how the Klamath River is operated, and making a landscape change in the upper basin that will be good for everybody," said Craig Tucker of the Karuk Tribe in Northern California, a leading advocate of the deal.

But two recent studies prepared for the Northcoast Environmental Center in Arcata, one of the parties to the talks, raise troubling questions about whether the deal is that good for fish.

William Trush, an environmental consultant on the faculty of California State University, Humboldt, and Greg Kamman, a hydrologist for a San Rafael consulting company, were provided assumptions and text of portions of the deal. Both see huge gains in knocking down the dams but are skeptical about what the deal otherwise would do for fish.

Their Nov. 9 reports question whether the deal can produce the additional water storage that it promises. They are critical of specific allocations of water for irrigation and nothing similar for restoring salmon runs. And the timelines are fuzzy.

"I am concerned that the successful implementation of the settlement agreement hinges on a conceptual plan which has no guarantees of being achieved within a specified amount of time," Kamman wrote.

The reports, which follow a National Research Council study last month supporting higher river flows, pose the potential for pushing some participants away from the deal.

"They could cause problems; I don't know," said Greg Addington of the Klamath Water Users Association. "But we want the agreement to work for fish."

Greg King of Northcoast declined to talk about the studies his group commissioned, saying he was concerned they had been leaked to The Bee in apparent violation of confidentiality agreements.

But the group's board of directors has been meeting to formulate its position on the settlement, and King called river flows the group's "most crucial issue."

"It's dicey," he said of the agreement. "We would be giving up some of our legal rights."

Commercial fishermen involved in the talks also seemed more cautious because the gains they want are outside the power of the negotiators to produce.

"The intent of the settlement agreement is to assure more water in the river, even during droughts, than has historically occurred," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

Critics of the deal say the studies may make the proposal's funding, already a huge issue, even more problematic. Much of the money would provide power subsidies for irrigators and economic development funds for counties and Indian tribes as well as restoration of the river and basin.

Critics wonder why Congress would agree to spend more than $900 million for this when there are doubts it will recover endangered fish. Some think the salmon runs are being sacrificed for news coverage of the dams someday being torn out.

"What I worry about is the trade-off," said Bob Hunter, a staff attorney for Water Watch of Oregon.

Jim McCarthy, spokesman for Oregon Wild, said he sees a "boondoggle" in the making.

"With no set allocation for fish, it says we are hoping to get the flows they need," he said. "But the flows they are talking about are less than what the scientists say the fish need."

But Tucker, of the Karuk Tribe, said that Water Watch and Oregon Wild excluded from talks last year after they refused to sign onto the framework for them are trying to torpedo the deal.

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