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Fish need water: Support Klamath salmon

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The Klamath River is overtaxed. Everyone from farmers to municipalities, fishermen and tribes, want its water and there is not enough to go around. Natural fisheries that feed tribal nations are being devastated. Last fall, after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reversed a 1999 policy and mandated the lion's share of water for farms, more than 30,000 salmon died in shallow waters insufficient to support their migration. Tribes along the river, which flows 254 miles from Oregon through northwest California, are deeply concerned that a similar die-off will occur this year.

The Yurok and other tribes have begun to protest all the way to Sacramento. The tribes charged the federal government with unfairly boosting irrigation for farms recently as officials reclassified water projections for the third time this year. As Sue Masten, Yurok chairwoman, stated: "We've got to take control. This river affects a lot of people."

In the early 1900s, naturalists hailed the Klamath Basin of southern Oregon and northern California for its abundant waterfowl nursery. The river teemed with fish. These days, over 20,000 acres of the Lower Klamath and Tulle Lake refuges are leased to purely commercial farms that grow onions, potatoes, alfalfa, horseradish and other crops. These crops are water-intensive and, when favored by the federal government, are drenched annually with more than 50,000 acre-feet (19 billion gallons) of irrigation water, which dries up much of its marshland water source. The crops require a wide range of highly toxic pesticides that endanger fish and wildlife.

In 1999, the Fish and Wildlife Service agency adopted a reasonable policy: on national wildlife refuges, wildlife should get first access to water. In 2001, farmers held violent protests to reclaim a higher water allocation and in June 2002, the Bush Administration's Fish and Wildlife Service reversed its 1999 policy. Crops, not wildlife, now get the first crack at scarce water supplies on the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges. While the commercial farms are now receiving full water deliveries, refuge marshes and the lower river suffer from lack of water. The Klamath Basin, once the third most productive salmon river system in the country, is drying up. Damning and diversion of rivers and draining wetlands has damaged much of the area's natural abundance, endangering several species of fish and wildlife.

The basin's plentiful fishery supported three Native tribes along the river and a fourth tribe near the headwaters of the Klamath River once harvested abundant fish and wildlife. Under the BLM's current water plan, most of the wetlands in Lower Klamath, Upper Klamath and Tule Lake refuges will go dry in at least half of the upcoming years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When marshes dry up, fish and wetland plants die, while waterfowl, bald eagles, and other wildlife suffer. Klamath salmon runs have thus been reduced to less than 10 percent of their historic abundance. The coho salmon and other species are now listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The lower river fishing-dependent economy has been devastated by the reduction of salmon, destroying also the livelihood of thousands of people. Two endemic fish of great nutritional and cultural importance to the Klamath tribes are endangered due to the poor water quantity and quality in Upper Klamath Lake.

A recent conference in Sacramento to discuss the western water allocation crisis, called "Water 2025," included no tribal speakers. The Yurok, who claim senior water rights to the Klamath, were not even invited to be on the panel. Joined by environmentalists, recreational and commercial fishing people, the tribe protested it.

Farmers upstream from tribal territories are also getting support from a committee of the National Academy of Science, which recently concluded that non-Indian farmers should get the water that the Interior Department devoted to protect tribal fisheries in Upper Klamath Lake. We agree with Native American Rights Fund Executive Director John Echohawk, who called the National Resource Council Committee of the National Academy of Science "blatantly discriminatory against Native American people." He urged withdrawal of the NRC Interim Report on Klamath Basin, which he labeled as "sloppy science." Echohawk insisted that the NRC's focus on the importance of farm economics to the exclusion of the economic concerns of Native Americans, "deliberately subjugated the rights of a Native American tribe and demeaned the value of the tribe's resources."

The report ignores NRC's extensive guidance on species protection under the Endangered Species Act. Although the NRC has instructed that such decisions must be based only on scientific aspects of species protection, the committee considered the "economic stakes" (and of only non-Indians) involved in the agency decisions.

Admittedly, the Klamath water issue is complex and affects many constituencies. It will certainly require much balancing and multiple solution-oriented approaches. However, a current proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives to help protect fish and wildlife in the Klamath Basin of Oregon and California merits support.

Representatives Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Chris Shays, R-Conn., intend to offer an amendment to the Interior Appropriations Bill that would reform management of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges.

The Blumenauer-Thompson-Shays Amendment to the Interior Appropriations Bill would be an important step toward balance in the Klamath Basin by phasing out those crops grown on the Basin's National Wildlife Refuges that consume the most water, use the most pesticides and provide little, if any, benefit to wildlife. Specifically, new farming lease agreements on the national wildlife refuges that replace leases that expire next year would not allow growing of onions, potatoes, horseradish, or alfalfa.

We urge all tribes and all Indian Country Today readers to contact your members of Congress and urge them to support the Blumenauer-Thompson-Shays Amendment to help restore balance to the Klamath River Basin in the Interior Appropriations Bill.

You can reach the offices of your members of Congress by calling the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and asking to be connected to his or her office or by visiting