The federal government has approved a state plan that calls for significant reductions in pollution from agricultural runoff and dam operations on the Klamath River, setting the stage for a long-awaited cleanup of one of California's major salmon rivers.
The new water quality standards are intended to help restore a river once home to bountiful salmon runs but more recently known as a polluted, water-starved battleground for farmers, tribes and salmon fishermen.
"It's nice to have a victory like this after so many years of litigation," said Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns., one of a number of groups that went to court in the 1990s to get the state to take action.
But it will take years, if not decades, to meet the standards. The pollution problems are spread across southern Oregon and Northern California and arise mainly from hydropower dams and runoff from farms, ranches and logging operations.
The dams are slated for removal under a separate long-term agreement. But farmers, ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service will have to change some of their practices in order to reduce erosion and runoff that have loaded the river with sediment and such nutrients as phosphorus and nitrogen, which promote the growth of oxygen-depleting aquatic life.
"You can't really flip the switch," said Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which announced its endorsement of the state's plan Tuesday.
Administrators of the Klamath National Forest are working on decommissioning old logging roads, and ranchers are beginning to erect fences to keep cattle off river banks, officials said. Keeping contaminated irrigation runoff out of the river will take more effort.
"They can fight it, but it's going to happen. We're willing to work with people in getting it accomplished," said Dave Clegern, press officer for the State Water Resources Control Board.
Classed as a federally protected "wild and scenic river," the 255-mile Klamath winds from Oregon through the Cascades Range and the Coast Ranges to California's Pacific Coast. Salmon, cutthroat trout, steelhead and sturgeon swim up the river and its tributaries, although in far fewer numbers than in decades past.
Spain said Coho salmon have fallen to 2% or less of their historic levels in the Klamath, while the Chinook salmon population is about a tenth of what it once was.
Four hydroelectric dams operated by PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway empire, would be removed under an unrelated river restoration settlement pending approval by the U.S. Interior Department. Spread along a 65-mile stretch of the Klamath near the Oregon border, the dams have blocked migrating salmon and created stagnant pools of warm water that promote the growth of toxic algae.
Pollution standards for the Klamath's tributaries were previously adopted.