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Klamath tribes believe a river should run through it: Part Three

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The word "balance" is one that is bandied about by those on both sides of the argument and appears to mean different things to different people and is at the heart of the issue. To the tribes and their largely Democratic allies in Congress, balance means having the needs of the fish met, whereas to the Klamath River Water Users Association, "balance" means meeting the farmers' water needs.

Yurok tribal biologist Dave Hillemeier thinks that the "balance" is all on the side of the farmers. He cites this past spring as an example of the Bush Administration's approach when water flows fell below tribal trust needs but full deliveries were still made to agriculture.

Hillemeier and Yurok chairwoman Sue Masten, a former National Congress of the American Indian president, claims that low flows during the spring months led to the deaths of thousands of juvenile fish and said that the federal government can not allow low flows at any time of the year.

In early September of this year, the problem was highlighted by an accident at a power facility on the Klamath operated by PacifiCorp. It seems that a maintenance person accidentally forgot to let the water flows resume after doing routine maintenance. As a result 40,000 yearling fall Chinook and 30,000 yearling summer steelhead perished at a nearby hatchery. Many of the Chinook were yearlings descended from last year's ill-fated run.

The Associated Press reported that officials at the U.S. Department of Fish and Game claim that they will not be able meet their annual goal of fish to make up for spawning habitat that has been lost to hydroelectric plants along the river.

Though PacifiCorp and all other parties agree that this is an accident, the ultimate impact on this year's fall run will not be known for several months and the problem could be further aggravated by a dry winter.

Since salmon are ocean going fish, and return to freshwater rivers to reproduce, they are found in the cold waters ranging from San Francisco Bay north to Alaska and annually stream into almost every opening to fresh water within that range. Nearly every expert on both sides of the issue give credit to favorable ocean conditions in the last few years for the large runs of salmon. Large salmon runs were also reported a little over 300 miles to the north on the Columbia River.

Though it seems self evident, extra water seems to be a consistent factor in maintaining healthy fish runs. Charles Hudson, who works with the Columbia Intertribal Fish Commission in Portland, Ore. reports that this year has seen the largest run of fish on the Columbia River since 1965.

The Klamath also had a similarly large run last year when a die off of an estimated 30,000 fall run Chinook occurred. Why then was there not a similar tragedy on the Columbia?

The Columbia basin finally enjoyed the plentiful rainfall for which it is known. The large fish runs on both rivers have been credited to an upwelling in the eastern Pacific that has brought many nutrients to the surface allowing the ocean-going salmon with plenty of food to flourish.

Traditionally, the Klamath is the third most important river on the West Coast for salmon, trailing only the Columbia and Sacramento rivers, and like Columbia, does not let out into a bay at its mouth but goes directly into the Pacific Ocean.

However, last winter's plentiful rain guaranteed that water would flow normally along the Columbia, whereas the Klamath, a much smaller river in terms of volume of water was in drought-like conditions when the fish kill happened last year.

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Hudson reported that there is a danger in being overly optimistic about the large fish runs. He says that the Bush Administration is too quick to claim victory on the Columbia after only a few years of increased runs and said another drought in that region could change fortunes dramatically.

Still, even with larger runs, fish on both rivers are not even in the same league as they were in traditional times. According to American Rivers, a non-profit environmental group's Web site, runs of salmon on the Klamath account for only about 15 percent of their original numbers. The Portland Native Fish Society claims that recent runs of about 2 million fish pale in comparison to the estimated 16 million that swam in the river when Sacagawea led Lewis and Clark on their historic trip two centuries ago.

What is nearly indisputable then is that fish runs on western rivers have declined since the arrival of European settlers. The descendants of these European settlers have now become entrenched and have enjoyed relatively easy access to the resources that affect the fish runs.

A few weeks after the event on the California state capitol, Gov. Gray Davis lost his bids to maintain his seat during California's much talked about recall election. Davis' loss and subsequent replacement by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger leaves much in doubt. Schwarzenegger, who ran a campaign that railed against "special interests" in California was actually the recipient of several million dollars from developers and other pro-business groups. How much this actually leaves Schwarzenegger indebted to their causes is as of yet unknown.

However, there are signs of change, though it is likely to come slowly. What if there is simply not enough water? The past three years have seen below average flows and fights over the flows. It is interesting to note that the water problems have surfaced only after the pendulum has begun to swing toward the tribes for the first time since the settlers moved into the area. Yurok and Hoopa have only recently had their fishing rights clarified by the federal government in 1993, when the Clinton Administration's Department of Interior asserted that the tribes were allowed 50 percent of the fish harvest surplus. About a year later, the tribes first became interested in water issues. However, though there were water disputes during this time, the mid-1990s were relatively wet years.

Rep. Thompson also introduced a bill this summer to stop irrigated crops on wildlife refuges and is trying to discourage the use of water-intensive crops like potatoes and alfalfa and has thus far met with fierce resistance from area farmers.

Dan Kappen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, believes part of the problem is in the water delivery system and thinks that it is stacked unfairly against the farmers. He pointed out that nearby farmers who take their water from state and local water districts have received their full deliveries during the recent dry spell and a better, more cooperative system could relieve some of the strains on those dependent on the federal project.

Masten is advocating a program where the government would buy out willing farmers and the federal government has already paid some people not to farm their land during low water supply years. However, Kappen calls the buy out plan "insulting" and says that farmers paid not to farm are not very happy.

Kappen said that his group is working with other groups including coastal fishermen, who sued the Bureau of Reclamation this year in a suit that both the Hoopa and Yurok are party to. He said that his group is working with some upper basin tribes such as the Klamath participating in visit programs where farmers go to tribal lands to see what their needs are and tribal members are visiting with basin farmers to learn more about their concerns.

During his interview, Kappen was preparing to head to the southern Oregon coastal town of Brookings to meet with some of the coastal fishermen, however, the group has yet to make arrangements with the larger and more powerful tribes of the lower basin. He is hopeful that all the groups will eventually come up with a workable solution.

Yurok biologist Hillemeier also hopes that a long-term workable solution can be hammered out, but insists that it can not be done at the expense of the fish.

The problem boils down to water. As demonstrated this year, a little extra late rain has gone a long way toward alleviating the problems, but inevitably there will be other droughts ahead. What happens if there just is not enough water to go around the next time drought strikes?

(This series was produced by James May as part of his fellowship project for the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism.)