Congressional Leadership Brings New Hope for the Klamath

In 2002, tens of thousands of salmon died in the Klamath River when drought and upstream water demands caused lethal water temperatures and disease in the lower river. Last week's court decision approving supplemental flows from the Trinity River for the Klamath should help prevent a repeat of the 2002 fish kill. Photo courtesy Yurok Tribe













By Brian Johnson

In the Klamath Basin, it’s one darned thing after another. Late last week, in a move cheered by TU and our Klamath partners, a federal judge allowed the United States to release extra water down the Trinity River into the Klamath River.  We’re not out of the woods yet, but hopefully this will prevent a massive salmon kill and calamity for the commercial salmon fishing industry.

Two hundred miles up-river, ranching families are experiencing their own drought-driven crisis. In June, the Oregon Watermaster had to turn off water to 96,000 acres of range and farmland in order to protect senior water right holders downstream under the newly final water rights adjudication. Everyone with water rights dated 1864 or after – almost all agriculture above Upper Klamath Lake – was shut off.

The next crisis may be at the basin’s famous wildlife refuges, which have been without water because of the dry summer and because the refuges have relatively junior water rights. Unfortunately, the basin has a long history with water-related catastrophes.

In 2001, water to the federal Klamath Reclamation Project was abruptly cut off for farmers on 170,000 acres of land, triggering widespread economic distress; smaller water cutoffs occurred in at least six other years. In 2002, the government responded to another dry year by delivering water for irrigation but cutting flows to the lower river just as adult salmon returned to the river. That led to the largest fish kill in U.S. history, with as many as 70,000 dead Chinooks. As a result, the commercial fishing industry in California and most of Oregon was completely shut down in 2006 and partially closed in 2005 and 2007. Tribes dependent on fish and river resources have suffered even more.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and recent moves by Senator Ron Wyden and the region’s Congressional delegation give Klamath basin stakeholders hope that we can soon break this cycle of crisis. In July 2013, Senator Wyden joined with Senator Jeff Merkley, Congressman Greg Walden, and Governor John Kitzhaber to convene a task force of interested parties to resolve remaining issues in the basin.

The Klamath River is justifiably famous for its superb fishing for salmon, steelhead, and wild trout. Photo courtesy Craig Nielson/Shasta Trout

The delegation asked that the task force build on the work that has already been completed with the 2010 Klamath agreements, which more than 40 parties signed, but also to go farther. Specifically, the task force is charged with resolving remaining water sharing issues above Upper Klamath Lake, addressing outstanding issues needed to maintain affordable power, and bringing down the cost to federal taxpayers. Senator Wyden and the delegation stated that they will use the task force’s recommendations as the basis for drafting legislation to authorize the parts of the agreements that require federal legislation.

Our deadline is September of this year. That’s an ambitious charge, but the delegation’s sense of urgency is welcomed by the task force members. TU is at the table on behalf of thousands of Oregon and California members and people come from across the nation who travel to the Klamath Basin to fish for its incredible steelhead, salmon, and wild trout. We played a major role in working out the two bipartisan agreements that the task force is building on now, and we won’t rest until a solution is implemented.

That time has arrived. With this year’s drought, everyone who depends on water from the river has experienced their own crisis: recreational and commercial fishermen, tribes, farmers in the Klamath Reclamation Project, and this year the “off project” (i.e., not Reclamation Project) water users above Upper Klamath Lake.

Perhaps this is why High Country News is reporting that even staunch opponents of the Klamath agreements now believe that settlement is the best hope for the region’s water woes. [subscription required].


Brian Johnson, TU’s California State Director, represents Trout Unlimited in the Klamath agreements and is a member of the task force.

For more information, see Brian’s recent interview on Jefferson Public Radio and the testimony submitted to Senator Wyden’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee:

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