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Plan May Doom Fish

Klamath Basin: Report says irrigation could lead to species' extinction, but official is optimistic about a solution.


Federal biologists have tentatively concluded that two species of endangered fish could face extinction if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proceeds with its 10-year plan to provide irrigation water to farmers in the Klamath River Basin.

Farmers have worried that the draft report, issued Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would cause water to be routed from newly planted farm fields to benefit fish.

A bureau spokesman expressed optimism, however, that the report signals that a Draconian farmers-or-fish decision in allocating water could be avoided.

"We think this draft opinion provides us some flexibility to provide irrigation water to our farmers and meet the needs for the fishery," said the bureau's Jeff McCracken. A spokesman for the farmers said Thursday that he had not yet seen the report.

After public review and comments, a final report will be issued June 1.

The basin was racked by protests last summer when irrigation water was held back from hundreds of farmers after the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that the 94-year-old federal irrigation project aiding farmers was threatening suckers and coho salmon with extinction.

A 1995 federal solicitor's opinion states that endangered species get priority for water in the basin, followed by Indian tribes who fish for salmon and then by irrigators who supply the farmers.

Federal officials say the supply of water is far more plentiful this year because of increased snowmelt and rain along the Oregon-California border.

But the basin is still not flush with water, and forecasts issued April 17 predict that incoming water will be 73% of normal from April to September.

Officials from half a dozen federal agencies are now struggling to satisfy the needs of water users up and down the Klamath River.

Bureau of Reclamation officials already assured farmers they will receive water. The bureau and wildlife regulators say they will work together to devise ways to irrigate fields and protect the endangered shortnose and Lost River suckers.

The draft report describes ways the bureau could avoid driving the fish toward extinction, such as adopting a more accurate formula for predicting water flows.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Assn., representing farmers, said he had not yet seen the Fish and Wildlife report and could not assess its potential impact on farmers.

He also said he is waiting for a similar report from the National Marine Fisheries Service on how the irrigation project would affect threatened coho salmon that also depend on Klamath water. That report was due out two weeks ago but has been twice delayed.

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