PD Editorial: Keeping the Klamath safe for salmon

  • ** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND FOR OCT 5-6 ** Hundreds of salmon rot near the Cleveland Wall of the Klamath River Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2002, near Klamath, Calif. Last spring when the Bush administration felt it had scientific justification for restoring old irrigation to farmers in the upper Klamath Basin members of the Yurok Tribe were not convinced. They pleaded for more water for salmon they have depended on for food for untold centuries. This summer, the tribe's worst fears were realized. Tens of thousands of bloated fish line the banks of the river. (AP Photo/Joe Cavaretta)

A federal agency, under pressure to supply water to irrigators, diverts a North Coast river, creating a killing field for tens of thousands of chinook salmon and other fish.

Sound familiar?

It's the Cliff's Notes version of events 11 years ago on the Klamath River — an unnatural disaster with disastrous consequences for coastal communities and Indian tribes that rely on salmon fisheries for their livelihoods.

This isn't just an exercise in "remember when." A favorable court ruling should protect this year's salmon run, but its a temporary fix for a problem that needs a long-term solution

In Oregon, a task force representing farmers, Indian tribes, conservation groups and utilities is trying — struggling may be more accurate — to craft a water-sharing plan for the upper Klamath River. In California, a federal agency's attempt to prevent another fish kill on the lower Klamath prompted a lawsuit.

Concerned about low flows and rising water temperatures, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made plans to release at least 62,000 acre-feet of cold water from Trinity Dam between mid-August and mid-September.

The Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority sued, contending that the water should go to San Joaquin Valley farmers whose irrigation supplies have been reduced due to drought conditions. Instead of releasing water into the Trinity River, the main tributary of the Klamath, they want it diverted to the Sacramento River and delivered to farmers via the Central Valley Project.

Eleven years ago, during another conflict between salmon habitat and irrigation supplies, Vice President Dick Cheney intervened on behalf of farmers in southern Oregon. Flows on the Klamath River dropped, and the water's temperature climbed, enabling a deadly pathogen to spread rapidly, killing about 68,000 fish. Five years passed before Cheney's role was revealed.

This time, the dispute landed in a federal courtroom in Fresno, about 300 miles south of Trinity Dam.

The water districts may have been counting on a friendly decision from a hometown judge. They didn't get it. In a ruling issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill said legal issues remain, but the immediate threat to the salmon outweighed the districts' request for an injunction. Releases can begin from Trinity Dam.

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