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EPA Approves Historic Klamath River Cleanup

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Protecting Native American cultural uses of Klamath River is one goal of a historic restoration plan for the waterway announced on Jan. 4 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This is good news for several Native American tribes who live along the river, including the Yurok, Hoopa Valley, Karuk, Quartz Valley and Resighini Rancheria on the lower stretches of the river, in California, and the Modoc and Klamath in the upper basin, in Oregon. For thousands of years they have relied on the river for subsistence, transportation and ceremony, the EPA noted.

It’s also good news for California, which has taken a beating in recent weeks, dragged into court by lawsuits over solar power and a controversial housing project. Now, according to the EPA, the state has done something right with a plan for reducing pollution in its portion of the river (the rest lies in Oregon), restoring salmon and other fisheries and enhancing recreational use of the river.

Four hydroelectric dams that stopped the flow of water and ruined the spawning grounds are also on deck for removal, part of earlier agreements. The U.S. Interior secretary has until March 2012 to decide whether to go ahead with the dam-removal plans.

“The Klamath agreements for us provide a long-term way to begin to address water-quality issues,” Troy Fletcher, policy analyst for the Yurok, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Removal of the four dams would have a positive effect on water quality, but there are a whole host of other problems on the Klamath that we need to continue to work on. This is a significant milestone, but it’s just one milestone.”

For its part Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality along with the EPA and other partners are developing a tracking program to speed up the pace of improvements while reducing their cost.

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California’s proposed measures, meant to reduce pollution from agricultural runoff and dam operations on the river, set the stage “for a long-awaited cleanup of one of California’s major salmon rivers,” the Los Angeles Timesreported.

The Klamath River is federally designated and protected as a “wild and scenic river” and flows 255 miles southwest from Oregon through northern California to the Pacific Ocean. Its watershed covers more than 12,600 square miles, an area dubbed the Everglades of the West, according to the EPA. The agency currently classifies the waterway as “impaired.”

Salmon, cutthroat trout, steelhead and sturgeon are among the species inhabiting the river. Redband and bull trout are upstream in Oregon. Tribes have long depended on the salmon and other fishing both for food and livelihood.

The California plan calls for massive pollution reductions for its portion of the river, including a 57 percent reduction in phosphorus, 32 percent in nitrogen, and 16 percent in carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand. The plan also calls for annual reductions in the river’s reservoirs of more than 120,000 pounds of nitrogen, and 22,000 pounds of phosphorus, the EPA said in its release.

This caps 13 years of state and federal efforts to clean up 17 North Coast water bodies, the EPA said. The California stretch of the Klamath River is the last of those covered by a 1997 legal settlement requiring the EPA and/or the state to mandate limits on pullutants and clean up the river.

The Associated Press and other outlets noted that “EPA scientists said fixing the problems will take years and hinge on municipal water treatment plants serving Klamath Falls, Ore., and Tulelake, Calif.; hydroelectric dams straddling the Oregon-California border; logging; farming; and cattle grazing.”