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Dikes blasted to restore Oregon marshland for endangered fish

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By Jeff Barnard -- AP Environmental Writer

CHILOQUIN, Ore. (AP) - Explosives sent clouds of dirt sky-high Oct. 30, breaching dikes to restore marshland for endangered fish at the heart of a long, bitter battle over water in the Klamath Basin.

The charges of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil spaced 10 feet apart along two miles of earthen dike allowed water to start dribbling into 2,500 acres of the Williamson River Delta.

By spring, what used to be among the most productive land farmland in the region is expected to be flooded.

It marked the culmination of 12 years of work to overcome animosities among farmers, American Indians and conservation groups, and to improve Upper Klamath Lake for Lost River and shortnosed suckers.

The fish are sacred to the Klamath Tribes. As endangered species, their water needs have twice forced shutoffs of irrigation to most of the 1,400 farms on the Klamath Reclamation Project, which covers 180,000 acres of high desert straddling the California-Oregon border east of the Cascade Range.

The most recent shutoff, in 2001, drew national attention again this year when the Washington Post reported that Vice President Dick Cheney took a hand in getting the water turned on for the benefit of farmers.

One of their leaders said Oct. 30 that farmers hoped all sides would recognize sacrifices being made in the basin.

''This particular site has been viewed by so many as so important [to the ecological restoration of the basin] that the agricultural community was able to set aside those feelings that we are losing our foothold here,'' said John Crawford of Tule Lake, Calif.

''We all recognize that for all of us to coexist here, there have to be sacrifices made on all sides,'' he said. ''As long as we are making the sacrifices on the part of the native species here ... the members of the environmental community and members of the tribal communities have to acknowledge and support the idea that the remaining acres of agriculture have to remain viable.''

The Nature Conservancy bought the land, known as Tulana Farms, in 1996 for $5 million with money from corporations and the federal

government.

It is part of a series of marshland restoration projects on the northern end of Upper Klamath Lake that will ultimately approach 20,000 acres. The lake is the primary reservoir of the irrigation system.

In the 1950s, when the suckers were still plentiful in the lake, farmers diked and pumped the water off the delta where the Williamson River flows into Upper Klamath Lake. They grew potatoes, wheat, barley and alfalfa.

Joe Kirk, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said he remembers being a first-grader in 1950, taking his Radio Flyer wagon to the river and filling it suckers, known in the Klamath language as chwam.

Kirk said he was optimistic the many restoration efforts, including those by the tribes, would one day allow the tribe again to harvest the chwam.

The restored marsh will provide 2,500 acres of refuge for hundreds of thousands of larval suckers migrating from spawning beds to feed and hide from predators before moving into Upper Klamath Lake.

The marsh also will filter agricultural waste carried by rain runoff into Upper Klamath Lake and ultimately the Klamath River, benefiting salmon as well as suckers, said Mark Stern, a biologist for the Nature Conservancy.

The lake and river are plagued by algae fed by agricultural runoff.

The expansion of the lake also adds storage capacity that will allow more water for irrigation as well as fish.

The blasts opened the northern half of the delta bordering Agency Lake. The southern half bordering Upper Klamath Lake will be blasted in a year or so, bringing to 5,800 acres the marshland restored. About 700 acres will remain in farmland growing organic alfalfa, Stern said.

The delta restoration was identified by the National Academy of Sciences and local people on a panel created by former Sen. Mark Hatfield as one of the top priorities for restoring natural systems to the Upper Klamath Basin.

Over the past century, 350,000 acres of marsh in the Upper Klamath Basin was reduced to less than 75,000 by farmers and federal agencies building dikes to create rich farmland.

In 1992, biologists realized that few suckers were growing to be adults, and declared them both endangered species due to loss of habitat, poor water quality and overfishing.

The Klamath Reclamation Project shut off water in 1992 and 2001 to most of the farms. Meanwhile, declining salmon runs in the Klamath River forced huge cutbacks in commercial salmon fishing.

Despite $500,000 in federal funds spent on various projects, the level of Upper Klamath Lake last summer came within less than an inch of dropping so far that irrigation water again had to be shut off.