Panel Urges Large-Scale Approach to Protect Fish in Klamath Basin

Times Staff Writer

A federal science panel on Tuesday recommended that U.S. wildlife regulators take a far more sweeping approach to prevent extinction of threatened fish in the Klamath Basin, a region racked in recent years by one of the West’s most contentious water wars.

After nearly two years of study, the National Research Council’s scientific committee suggested a series of aggressive steps ranging from reviving long-drained lakes and wetlands to better controlling erosion from logging, restoring coldwater flows into tributaries, shuttering a hatchery and toppling dozens of dams.

But the 12-member panel stuck by a controversial finding it first announced in an interim report last year: that, based on the scientific evidence, increased flows in the Klamath River and higher water levels in Oregon’s Upper Klamath Lake are not justified to protect coho salmon in the river and the lake’s two species of sucker fish.

Controversy swept the fertile agricultural basin straddling the Oregon-California border in 2001 after federal officials increased water allotments for fish and slashed irrigation deliveries to farmers. Environmentalists, Indian tribes and others have been wrangling ever since with farmers and the Bush administration, which boosted water deliveries to agriculture in 2002 but then drew blame for a fish die-off that claimed 33,000 salmon and steelhead trout in the Klamath River.

Both sides in the debate welcomed the report’s call for solutions throughout the sprawling Klamath River watershed, which spreads from the Cascade Mountains of Oregon south into the dense northern woods of California.


Bush administration officials reacted with caution, but said the report justifies many of their actions and relieves them of blame in the fish kill while pointing the way for solutions that don’t focus on simply taking water from farmers.

“While it may be a lot harder to take the broader approach, it is more fair,” said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, the Interior Department’s deputy director. “If it obligates everyone in the basin to work harder, that’s too bad, but that’s the appropriate approach. The easy answers aren’t always the right answers.”

Agricultural interests in the Klamath Basin welcomed the research findings as validation of their long-held belief that farmers have borne too much blame for problems with the fish.

“It’s great news,” said Dan Keppen, Klamath Water Users Assn. executive director. “It pretty clearly shows that the focus on us was wrong, that this needs to be a watershed-wide solution. We see this as a very positive step.”

But environmentalists and others fighting for protection of the threatened fish say the scientific panel’s conclusions, though in many cases welcome, represent the sort of slow-developing solutions that will be tough to finance and could meet stiff resistance throughout the region. Implementing the recommended new research and a few small-scale projects could cost up to $35 million, and major efforts such as removing dams would add considerably to the price tag and delays.

“What I think they got wrong is relying on solutions that are going to take five, 10, 15 years to implement,” said Steve Pedery of Oregon WaterWatch. “In the meantime, these fish don’t have that much time to waste.”

Even so, he and others said they saw plenty to like in the thick report.

A prime objective is for the federal wildlife agencies to make a broader push with all of the parties that have an impact on the basin, not just focusing on Klamath farmers. Jeffrey F. Mount, a UC Davis geology professor on the panel, said wildlife regulators need to use “the array of tools they have available” through the U.S. Endangered Species Act. One example: Wildlife agencies could put more pressure on the U.S. Forest Service to prevent sediment runoff into streams from logging and road building, which can smother spawning beds.

The panel also called for better fish studies as well as monitoring of water quality and other environmental conditions. Removal of Chiloquin Dam would open up 90% of the historic spawning habitat on Upper Klamath Lake.

Conditions on Upper Klamath Lake, meanwhile, have grown so bleak that recovery of sucker fish there is at best a long-term prospect, the panel said. Years of upstream ranching, erosion and naturally occurring phosphorous on the lake bottom have created algae blooms that rob oxygen and can cause periodic die-offs of the endangered Lost River and short-nosed suckers.

Among others, Peter Moyle, a UC Davis biology professor and panel member, pointed to alternatives such as reintroducing the fish to a small Oregon lake where suckers were killed off decades ago to make room for sport fish. The panel also suggested that marshy Lower Klamath Lake and the remnants of Tule Lake in California be at least partially revived to help boost sucker populations. Mount of UC Davis said it would mean “some farmland would go,” a controversial step in the basin.

Down river, the panel said that survival of the coho salmon hinged more on the temperature of river flows than dramatic boosts in volume. Removal of dams on the Klamath would restore the cold flow from several small creeks drowned by reservoirs.

But dam removal is no easy task, and often controversial. One of the dams has created Lake Shastina, a popular recreational lake. But it also blocks nearly a quarter of the historic salmon spawning grounds and valuable coldwater flows from the Shasta River.

Likewise, cold flows on other tributaries such as the Scott, Trinity and Salmon could be boosted by returning water to the system that is now diverted by farmers to grow alfalfa and other crops in California.

The panel conceded that higher river flows in general could help other species, such as steelhead trout and chinook salmon, a mainstay of the West Coast’s commercial fishing industry.

The National Research Council committee said that hatchery fish on the Klamath might be hurting coho, crowding out their wild cousins. To test that theory, the panel said the hatcheries could be shut down for three years, the lifecycle of salmon. “I’ll bet,” Moyle said, “you’d see an increase in coho.”

As for the 2002 fish kill on the Klamath, the panel disagreed with arguments from the California Fish and Game biologists that dwindling river flows and crowded conditions caused the disaster. The report said there is not enough scientific evidence to conclude that flow or high water temperatures caused the fish kill.