No country for salmon
Part Four of a five part series on the proposed Klamath settlement and the future of the river.
The Klamath River is not itself.
It was once the third-largest river on the West Coast for salmon production, behind only the Columbia and Sacramento rivers.
A century ago, the Klamath was a free-flowing waterway, stretching more than 250 miles from its headwaters in Klamath County, Ore., to the Pacific Ocean in Del Norte County.
The Upper Basin was host to salmon, trout and a number of native fish species, but anadromous fish have been blocked for years from passing above dams on the Klamath.
Now, the river struggles to offer suitable habitat for fish. The Klamath's coho salmon are listed as threatened, and spring chinook that historically swam up past the headwaters to spawn make it no farther than Salmon River, a tributary below Iron Gate dam. Iron Gate hatchery produces a number of fall chinook salmon each year, but even those runs have declined over the years.
Some believe a century's worth of development in the Upper Basin and habitat destruction throughout have degraded fish habitat near the headwaters and downstream. Others are quick to point to the dams as blockades to river habitat and creators of poor water quality.
Compared with recent years the upcoming Klamath salmon run looks positive as far as it goes, which is the 190-mile stretch from the mouth to the first dam, Iron Gate. But salmon, for a multitude of reasons, don't have access to about 300 miles of spawning and rearing habitat upriver.
A recent settlement proposal designed to restore the Klamath's fisheries is on the table. It seeks to resolve years of fighting among fishermen, American Indian tribes and farmers over fish and water in the basin. If implemented, the settlement promises to destroy PacifiCorp's four dams on the Klamath, restore salmon to the entire river and allocate stable amounts of water to farmers.
But can this draft document stand under the weight of those promises?
Some swear it can. Others think it won't.
Since the proposal's release in mid-January—and well before it was made public—the river's stakeholders have argued over provisions for fish in the draft settlement. Some say this agreement favors farmers and forgets fish, while others maintain it is the best compromise the entire basin can hope to support.
This week, The Daily Triplicate examines these arguments and looks at what provisions would exist for fish if the dams are relicensed to continue to operate.
There is no argument over the desire for a favorable end result for fish. Everyone wants to see salmon thrive once again in the upper stretches of the river and endangered sucker fish make a comeback in Upper Klamath Lake. The controversy is over how to make that happen.
One camp says the current settlement's provisions are sufficient. Another group says the proposal leaves too many questions unresolved. Here is a look at some of the most difficult issues those involved must wrestle through if resolution is to be found.
Environmentalists still concerned
The entire settlement hinges on Portland-based PacifiCorp agreeing to remove its four dams on the Klamath. The power company has not agreed to this, but confidential talks are still ongoing to try to reach a deal to remove the dams that also makes business sense to PacifiCorp.
Some proponents of the current deal say they are confident the power company will agree to this, sending the entire $985 million plan into motion.
Yet others who also support dam removal for fish still feel uncomfortable that the draft agreement was structured in such a way that the best provisions for fish were compromised to get more stakeholders to approve of dam removal.
"Dams coming out is a valid premise on its own, but using the settlement as a carrot to get there I don't think is wise," said Eileen Cooper, a local resident and board member of Arcata's Northcoast Environmental Center, which does not support the current draft.
Oregon Wild, a non-profit fish and wildlife conservation group, was involved with early negotiations that began when PacifiCorp's dams were up for relicensing. But as negotiations continued, the group's members didn't agree with provisions that developed for fish. The group decided it couldn't sign off on the framework for the draft settlement, said Sean Stevens, a spokesman for Oregon Wild.
Among other things, the environmental groups think some public land currently leased for agriculture should be returned to wetlands for better fish habitat.
"Aside from provisions we think are harmful to wildlife and fish, what are we trading for dam removal when that's not part of the deal yet?" Stevens said.
The group, along with WaterWatch of Oregon, wasn't invited back to the remaining negotiations, Stevens said.
The problems for fish that Oregon Wild opposed then haven't changed, Stevens added, and a promise of dam removal still hasn't been realized.
Negotiators talking with PacifiCorp hope the power company will realize that it's cheaper to remove the dams than relicense them with mandatory fish-passage improvements.
"I think we have an opportunity to seal the deal this year," said Craig Tucker, Klamath coordinator with the Karuk Tribe.
Water for fish versus farms
Fisheries biologists and experts have disagreed over whether fish in the Klamath River will get enough water under the current settlement's provisions.
Most of the plan's section about fish, some say, is simply an outline or a plan for a plan.
For instance, the settlement mentions restoration, reintroduction and monitoring plans for fish but only provides brief guidelines on how these programs might work. Details on actual implementation would be developed after the settlement is passed, overseen by "fish managers" and various advisory groups.
"Technical advisory teams are only as good as the parameters they're handed," said Greg King, executive director of Northcoast Environmental Center. "If handed a scenario where agriculture is allocated a certain amount (of water) in dry years that's unchangeable, that makes tasks more difficult."
Farmers who irrigate within the federal Klamath Reclamation Project's 220,000 acres of farm and ranch land near the river's headwaters would receive under this settlement specific water allotments for agriculture. Not included are water provisions for fish in drought years, although a future plan has been promised.
But on-project farmers who will receive a supposed water guarantee under this proposal haven't had an easy time accepting the agreement. In dry years, water allocations to their land will be far less than what is needed to be fully productive, said Ken Rykbost, retired superintendent for Oregon State University's Klamath Experience Station and a research scientist.
"There's a real sacrifice to the Project," Rykbost said. "We estimate half of the years we'll be short of the water we need to fully farm."
Some fishery biologists who support the current draft say they wouldn't be on board if fish weren't getting the best possible outcome.
"I have not even the least amount of doubt that the best path forward for salmon is through the settlement process," said Larry Dunsmoor, a biologist with Klamath Tribes, headquartered in Chiloquin, Ore., near the river's headwaters.
Before its board made a decision about the current settlement, the Northcoast Environmental Center hired independent scientists to review provisions for fish in the draft proposal. Their reviews found that fish were not guaranteed water or a sure-footed recovery plan.
King acknowledges the expertise of scientists who continue to back the current settlement's provisions for fish, but said he believes the science they developed for fish restoration was first predicated, then dictated, by deliveries to agriculture.
But tribal biologists point to the importance of fisheries for tribal members, saying they wouldn't agree to something if it were detrimental to fish. The Yurok Tribe, at the urging of its Tribal Council, has built an extensive, credible fisheries program, said Troy Fletcher, a member of the Yurok Tribe who has worked in fisheries since the early 1980s, most recently with the tribe.
"No one has the knowledge and experience that the Yurok Tribe has when it comes to the technical knowledge of the Klamath River," Fletcher said. "That's not by accident."
Fish life in the fast lane
Some critics of the current settlement proposal say river flows won't be rapid enough for fish at certain times when they most need fast, cool water.
They cite previous studies conducted by Thomas Hardy at Utah State University as the "best available science" on what Klamath River flows are necessary for fish. Hardy's recommended flows are viewed among some biologists as the best possible, but not always realistic, flows for fish.
Hardy recently said flows provided in the settlement wouldn't be adequate in dry years, especially as agriculture demands its minimum water allotment.
A deal with these provisions shouldn't be allowed to go forward, especially considering the 2002 fish kill in the Klamath when the river experienced low flows, some opponents say.
But Mike Belchik, senior fisheries biologist with the Yurok Tribe, said he considers Hardy's ideal flow provisions a yardstick with which to compare realistic flows. Given the realities of other needs in the basin, fish are getting enough water in the river, he said.
"We don't feel we'll be hurting fish," Belchik said. With the exception of really dry years, he said flows are adequate for fish. A drought plan, when developed, will address those drier years, he added.
When fish need the most water, agriculture often has a matching critical need. That is the fundamental issue facing the entire Klamath River Basin. Everyone needs water, so in essence, everyone is in this together.
The river flows provided for fish in the settlement take into account a number of issues, including water allocations promised to farmers.
If river-flow rates only consider the needs of fish, studies show that agriculture won't get enough water in the Upper Basin, or lake levels near the headwaters will be severely lowered, Dunsmoor said. The in-stream flows provided in the settlement are still a lot better for fish than they are now, he added.
The settlement provides the framework to do habitat restoration and fish reintroduction, not just getting faster water in the river for fish, Dunsmoor said. Accomplishing all of these goals could happen through one settlement agreement, or take the form of endless litigation, he said.
"I'm sitting here looking at a system in desperate need of massive habitat restoration, dam removal . . . tell me how you get those things without an agreement like this?" Dunsmoor said. "What we need is better ecosystem management, not just flow management."
Reach Michelle Ma at email@example.com.
Part Four - No country for salmonRead the original story