Klamath Basin Water Issues and Salmon



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The Klamath River was once the third most productive salmon river system in the United States. Today, thanks to habitat blocking dams, poor water quality and too little water left in the river, the once abundant Klamath salmon runs have now been reduced to less than 10% of their historic size. Some species, such as coho salmon, are now in such low numbers in the Klamath River that they are listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Salmon losses in the Klamath Basin have had devastating impacts on the lower river fishing-dependent economy, putting thousands of people out of work and eliminating tens of millions of dollars annually from the economy of these rural areas and coastal ports, from Fort Bragg, California to Florence, Oregon. The need to protect depressed Klamath salmon runs has also triggered fishing closures on otherwise abundant stocks (mostly hatchery fish from the California Central Valley) all up and down the west coast, causing many indirect economic costs as well.

One of the biggest problems for water quality in the Klamath River is the operation of the Klamath Irrigation Project, a huge federal water project which diverts most of the water from the Upper Klamath Basin (in Oregon) for irrigation long before it can reach salmon spawning areas downriver in California. The remaining water left in the river, whatever the Project is willing to release from Iron Gate Dam, is so little in volume, so hot and so laced with pesticides and nitrates from agricultural waste water that it is often fatal for salmon as much as 100 miles downriver. Hundreds of thousands of salmon have been killed in recent years as a result, and Klamath River coho salmon driven nearly to extinction.

There has never been much consideration in the operation of the Klamath Irrigation Project by the Bureau of Reclamation for the devastating consequences on lower river communities and families when the Project takes too much water out of the river for irrigation. Now that is beginning to change. Recent successful lawsuits by fishermen and salmon conservation groups have begun to bring more balance between upper basin and lower basin river interests, and to demonstrate that farmers have no right to drain the river and siphon off the lakes if it will devastate the river system inself, push its inhabitants into extinction and violate Tribal Treaty obligations. This page contains information and links to official documents, fact sheets and court decisions about this issue.

Why the Klamath Matters to Fishermen (Fishermen’s News, August, 2001)

Myths and Facts about the Klamath Irrigation Project and the Need for Water Reforms

COMMENT NOW: Downloadable Sample Letter Telling FERC To Remove the Klamath Dams

Declaration of Klamath Fishery Failure by Sec. Gutierrez (10 Aug. 2006)

Declaration of Klamath Fisheries Disaster by Gov. Schwarzenegger (6/6/06)

PFMC Letter Recommending Klamath Dam Removal (4/24/06)

NMFS Klamath Fish Passage (pgs. 1-140) and Dam Removal Recommendations (pgs. 141-161) (3/24/06) (long download)

Letter 11 April 2005 to Gov. Kulongoski Requesting Klamath Disaster Declaration

Letter 9 April 2005 to Gov. Schwarzenegger Requesting Klamath Disaster Declaration

Request for Fisheries Disaster Relief from 37 Members of Congress (5/12/05)

Request for Fisheries Disaster Relief from Rep. Mike Thompson (5/3/05)

Wall Street Journal 7/30/03: Klamath Water Saga Illuminates Karl Rove’s Methods

PCFFA 14 July 2004 Letter to President Bush Asking for Klamath Salmon Fishery Disaster Aid

19 May 2003 Letter by California Resources Secretary Nichols to Interior Secretary Gail Norton on Insufficient Klamath River Flows to Protect Fisheries

Preliminary California Dept. of Fish & Game Klamath Fish Kill Report (January, 2003)

PCFFA Press Release on CDFG Klamath Fish Kill Report (1/3/03)

Letter 12/04/02 by Pacific Fishery Management Council on the Importance of Putting More Water in the Klamath River to Prevent More Fish Kills

PCFFA US Senate Letter (11 July 2001) on the Smith Amendment ESA waiver.

PCFFA Letter to California Legislature on ‘God Squad’ resolution (AJR 14)

Operation of the Klamath Irrigation Project as it has operated in the past devastates downriver fisheries:

For years the Bureau of Reclamation has dragged its feet and refused to consider downriver coho salmon impacts, and thus was ordered by Judge Armstrong to complete ESA consultations on 2 April 2001 in a suit brought by PCFFA and others, and was enjoined from delivering any more water for irrigation until it has a ‘concrete plan’ for preventing the extinction of downriver coho salmon (note: may be a long (up to 15 minutes) download):

This ruling is also on Westlaw at 2001 WL 360146, and will be published in the F. Supp. in due course. Finally, after completion of the process and without objection from PCFFA, the court’s injunction was removed on 7 May 2001 to allow some irrigation water to flow to Klamath Irrigation Project farmers.

The water reforms required by the National Marine Fisheries Service and by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, including giving endangered fish and wildlife and Tribal treaty obligations priority over irrigation, is legal:

Electronic Case Files: Kandra, et. al. vs. United States (US District Court of Oregon, Civ. No. 01-6124 AA)

Call for Eureka Congressional Hearings so Coastal Voices Can Also Be Heard

Press Support of Water Reforms:

The Oregonian: 18 August 2001: Help for Klamath Farmers Comes to About $100 an Acre

Editorial: 15 July 2001: New York Times: “Oregon Water Wars”

Editorial: 13 May 2001 The Oregonian: “The Klamath Dust Bowl: Water Crisis in the Klamath Basin Isn’t Just About Suckers vs. Farmers: It’s About a Century of Unresolved Problems.”

OpEd by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, 1 June 2001 The Oregonian: “Klamath Solution Takes Cooperation by All.”

Editorial: 27 May 2001 Eugene Register-Guard: “Don’t Blame the Fish: Government Policies Created Klamath Basin Crisis.”

Editorial: 1 July 2001 Eugene Register-Guard: “Try Klamath Buyouts: Not Enough Water, Too Many Users.”

Last modified 4/15/08 and contantly under construction, so check back frequently!