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The things that weren’t said in Klamath Basin


Reprinted from Capital Press, Vol. 77, No. 36, Sept. 3, 2004


Felice Pace


I’ve been reading reports about the Endangered Species Act hearing held July 17 in

the upper Klamath River Basin.


Based on news and participant reports, what was said in Klamath Falls was

predictable: Those who control water — the irrigation folks, their right-wing supporters

and their Republican congressmen — don’t like ESA restrictions on irrigation. Tribes

rightly point out that the ESA does not protect their fishing and gathering rights.

Fishermen from the coast recited their decades-long losses.


This is all old territory, gone over time and again since the summer of 2001 when —

after a decade of pleading for more river flows — environmental groups used the

Endangered Species Act to prevent the federal government from ignoring that drought

necessitates cutting back irrigation deliveries.


What is more interesting is what was not said.


Not said was that in the Klamath Basin the Endangered Species Act has so far been

the only thing that has provided the tribes with even a portion of the water rights they

need to protect and restore treaty fisheries. No one wants to talk about the ESA as a tool for social justice, but in the Klamath it has been just that.


Throughout the 20th century the federal government, the states of Oregon and

California and private agricultural interests appropriated more and more water. By 2001

up to 90 percent and in some smaller streams 100 percent of available summer stream

flow was diverted for irrigation. This appropriation — which is still continuing as

groundwater supplies are tapped — has come at the expense of those who rely on

fisheries. The ESA has functioned to remedy — if only in part — this historic injustice.

Not said was the fact that if the states of California and Oregon had been doing their

duties, irrigators and the feds would never have been able to get control of 80-100 percent of dry season surface water and the Endangered Species Act would not be needed to secure minimum river flow. For example, the California Constitution, as well as the state’s water and fish and game codes, require flows below dams and diversions to maintain fish habitat “in good condition.” Dry, sluggish and polluted is not good



Not said in Klamath Falls was that the Bush administration’s main program to fix the

basin’s water conflicts — on-farm “projects” to improve “water conservation” — is in

reality a $50 million dollar giveaway to irrigators. Many of the “Klamath EQIP” projects

(they are really capital improvements) provided to irrigators will actually increase net

water use during critical summer and fall months. No one in Klamath Falls called for the

congressional investigation needed to expose this affront to taxpayers and perversion of

the intent of Congress when it funded farm bill “on-farm water conservation.”


There was a lot more not said in Klamath Falls. The Bush administration’s active

efforts to link Klamath dam relicensing with the flow issue in order to get concessions

from the tribes to benefit agriculture was not mentioned. The fact that the federal

Klamath Irrigation Project, PacifCorp’s Klamath River dams and most private irrigation

systems don’t comply with another bedrock environmental law — the Clean Water Act

— was not mentioned. The fact that right now Iron Gate Hatchery, owned and funded by PacifCorp and operated by California Fish and Game, is “taking” ESA-listed coho

salmon in violation of the ESA was not mentioned. No one asked why neither agencies

charged with caring for coho, nor fishermen, nor tribes, nor scientists are taking action to

stop coho from being killed by the hatchery.


As is usual when congressmen come to town, what was not said in mid-July in

Klamath Falls is much more interesting than what was said. However, if we are going to

have a real and a just solution to the ongoing Klamath water crisis, those unmentionables

listed above will need to come out for pubic scrutiny and debate. One thing is sure: If we

the citizens allow the Klamath’s “solution” to be crafted in back rooms by lawyers,

professional lobbyists and politicos, we will not like the result — nor, I fear, will the fish.


Felice Pace is a volunteer activist with the Klamath Forest Alliance. He lives near

the mouth of the Klamath River and has been active on Klamath River Basin fish, water, farm and forest issues for 20 years.




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