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Bill Tackles Klamath River Woes

October 25, 2002|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Wading into the Klamath River fight, a California congressman is pushing for $200 million to buy farmland, boost river flows and bankroll conservation measures so more water goes to imperiled fish.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) introduced legislation this week that would provide $20 million for emergency financial assistance to help California Indian tribes and commercial fishermen hit hard by a fish kill late last month that claimed up to 30,000 adult salmon.

Thompson also wants to put quarreling parties on the river's upper and lower reaches on equal footing by merging two competing task forces that represent each side. He contends that the Bush administration has favored farmers in the upper Klamath over tribes and commercial fishermen in communities along the lower river.

"It is time we work together to find workable solutions that take all affected communities into consideration," Thompson said Thursday.

He added that his legislation would encourage conservation while bringing all sides together "to find feasible solutions for years to come."

But his measure, while unlikely to be debated in earnest until next year, flies in the face of positions taken by farmers in the Klamath Basin, a swath of more than 200,000 acres of agricultural land on the upper Klamath along the border between California and Oregon.

Farmers there adamantly oppose the blanket purchase of farm land and water rights in the basin, saying such actions are too drastic and would undermine the local farm economy.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Assn., said farmers are concerned about using legislation to set higher river flows.

"They want to legislate this before the science is out on what's best," Keppen said, adding that the study Thompson uses to justify the higher flows is "fatally flawed."

Fishermen, Native Americans and conservation groups contend Thompson's approach would restore balance to a process that, they maintain, has for several years favored farmers over fish and the people who depend on them.

Sue Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe, said water management along the Klamath has come down to "who has the best political connections. Native Americans and people who depend on a healthy river have been left high and dry. This legislation will give everyone a fair shake."

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