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Water for Farms, Wildlife

November 01, 2002

Intrigue and controversy continue to roil the waters of the 180-mile Klamath River, which rises in southern Oregon but courses mainly through Northern California before flowing into the ocean south of Crescent City.

When more than 33,000 salmon died while migrating upstream to spawn in September, federal scientists said the fish succumbed to disease, but they weren't sure of the cause. Now it's becoming evident that some state experts were correct in thinking the fish got sick because farmers diverted too much water to irrigate more than 200,000 acres of crops along the California-Oregon border.

This week, a federal biologist invoked the Whistleblower Protection Act after accusing the Bush administration of ignoring his findings and pressuring his chiefs to agree to lower water flows for fish so that the farmers would get their full allocation of water this year. The biologist, Michael Kelly of the National Marine Fisheries Service, helped write an opinion calling for more water to protect fish listed under the Endangered Species Act. Even at that level, a state official protested, "Those flows are just far too low."

But the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which delivers water to the farmers, insisted the crops get their full allotment. They did and the salmon died.

Here's the problem: There isn't enough water in the river to meet all needs. In the mid-1990s, a federal solicitor held that endangered species had first priority, downstream Indian tribes came next and then the irrigators. The Bush administration has reversed that order, despite the century-old treaty rights of Native Americans who need both water and salmon.

There is a way to make more water available. Environmental groups sued Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton on Wednesday to require her to phase out the leasing to farmers of 20,000 acres within the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges. The Wilderness Society and others argued in U.S. District Court in Sacramento that diversions to grow grain and row crops had turned large areas of wetlands into "barren, cracked, dried mud."

In 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded, logically enough, that farming was not compatible with the purposes of refuges. The Bush administration reversed that decision too.

The region is the largest wintering ground for bald eagles in the lower 48 states. Millions of migrating waterfowl also stop there, but their numbers have declined dramatically since water diversions damaged wetlands.

With a phaseout of the refuge leases, farmers still could irrigate their other 180,000 or so acres, the salmon would get more water and the refuges would revive to serve again as a vital link in the birds' age-old natural migration cycle. No one should have to go to court to get that result.

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