Feds allocate Klamath water during drought

Author:
Updated:
Original:

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - In early March, the question was how an ongoing
five-year drought would affect water allocations on the Klamath River on
the California-Oregon border, a river in which area tribes have fisheries.
Last week the federal government issued its water allocation plans for the
Klamath Basin, and as expected, water deliveries are being curtailed.

A series of late rains in March and early April have not provided enough
water to fulfill water needs on the heavily allocated river basin.
Officials at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the governmental agency that
oversees the allocations, claim that allocations for endangered fish
species will be met.

However, environmentalists and area tribes claim that recent flows were
still a shortchange and leave several fish species vulnerable, including
the threatened coho and chinook salmon - species that suffered a massive
die-off a few years ago.

As it stands, farmers will take a hit of about 30 percent, receiving about
70 percent of their normal allocation. This means that around 199,000
acre-feet of water will be delivered to the farmers; the Bureau of
Reclamation is asking them to further tighten their belts for another
reduction of roughly 15 percent.

Jeff McCraken, Bureau of Reclamation spokesman, said the flows will be
enough to meet the deliveries required of them by the Endangered Species
Act as designed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

McCraken noted that this year's allocation plan was designed with input
from tribes and that 100,000 acre feet of water will be delivered to the
river throughout the summer, which is the West Coast's dry season.

"What can we say: it's been a dry year," said McCraken.

This year is shaping up to be the region's third driest on record.

The federal government has found itself in a bind over the drought due to a
century-old federal water project that was designed to bring farmers,
primarily of potatoes, into the area that was finally completed just after
World War II. The original allocations did not take fish and other species
into account, and farmers enjoyed relatively abundant water supply.

Things began to change in the last few decades, as fish species began to
disappear and federal rules began mandating that a certain amount of water
be used to maintain fish populations. In addition, treaty rights
guaranteeing local tribes enough water to maintain these populations were
at long last enforced. For a while, as the rain fell in normal or above
normal amounts, this system was able to provide both farmers and fish with
adequate water.

Not everyone is happy with the allocations. The Los Angeles Times reported
one farmer said environmentalists and fishing interests are "poisoning the
process" and that the federal government is going to initiate a plan that
will idle some 30,000 acres, or one-tenth of Klamath basin farmland.

In fact, this water plan is not making much headway on the other side of
the debate. Steve Pedery, Klamath wildlife advocate for the Oregon Natural
Resources Council, claimed that the water flows were more the result of
politics than sound biological reasoning.

Pedery said the current flows, in place since 2002, have been disastrous
and cited as evidence the die-off of some 70,000 chinook salmon on and near
the Yurok reservation on the lower portion of the river. Additionally,
Pedery contended that that die-off did not include juvenile fish kills that
have happened annually since flow was restricted.

In 2001, the year before the chinook die-off, under late rules by the
Clinton administration, water was severely curtailed to the farmers, who
only received one late burst of water. Pedery said that this represented
the only time that the balance of water went to fish.

However, it also led to social unrest among farmers in the area, some of
whom forced open the locks that prevented them from receiving water.
Another result was ethnic tension and ugly incidents between some local
whites and area tribes.

Another problem Pedery saw with the allocations is that they ignore the
area's lakes and wetlands. A century ago, before the federal water project,
he said, there were some 350,000-acres of wetlands and lakes of which 80
percent has been reduced. Tule Lake, for example, has been reduced so much
that its basic appearance has been altered.

Pedery argued that by reducing water allocations to wetlands and lakes by
about half, the Bush administration is sidestepping the Endangered Species
Act.

"If we would just enforce the basic treaty rights of the tribes, which
trumps the rights of the irrigators, then the fish in the basin would have
enough water."

George Kautsky, deputy director for the Hoopa Valley Tribal Fisheries, said
that while he has not read the report, he concurred with Pedery that the
flows are too low to sustain fish populations.

"Tribes are not going to be allocated water for subsistence [fishing]
needs," said Kautsky.

Kautsky added that he thinks the federal government can do a better job at
monitoring water as it goes into the water project for agricultural
irrigation. He said at least one critical point lacks a proper meter, and
that water could be saved if it were metered properly before going to the
farmers.

Given the paucity of precipitation of recent years, Kautsky echoed an
opinion with which all sides seem to agree. "It's going to be a tough, dry
year."