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Die-off continues to be controversial

By Lance Waldren,  Pioneer Press, July 18, 2007

KLAMATH FALLS - The Klamath Project is rich in history and is no stranger to controversy.

The 2001 water shut off put the area in the national spotlight as irrigation water was denied to more than 1,400 basin farms and ranches. Some groups have even blamed the project for the 2002, large scale die off of salmon near the mouth of the Klamath River.

The issues facing the Klamath Project and the Klamath River system are very complicated and decisions that are made regarding their use affect thousands of people in many different communities and groups. Add in the political agendas from many different sides of the fence and the issues and solutions become even more murky.

A google search on the subject will bring up hundreds of articles, most having different opinions, viewpoints and political agendas relating to how our natural water resources should be used.

The basin is again in the national news, following a series of articles in the Washington Post, claiming Vice President Cheney and the Klamath Project were somehow responsible for the salmon die-off. This claim has once again sparked a firestorm of political debate and media editorials.

Cheney is accused in the Post article of giving personal attention in early 2001 to Klamath Basin water policy issues and in manipulating the conclusions of an independent review, by the National Research Council, of the science used to cut off irrigation in the Basin.

Then, presidential hopeful John Kerry, called on the U.S. Interior Department's Inspector General to look into whether political pressure from the White House was intimidating staff and influencing policy in Klamath River management decisions.

The matter seemed closed when Inspector General Devaney's report, released in 2004, found no evidence of political influence affecting the decisions pertaining to the water in the Klamath Project.

The die-off of the salmon was a disaster for those who live down river.

Now, nearly five years later, the argument over the cause of what really happened is still being debated.

The Pioneer Press spoke with several state and federal officials dealing with the fish die-off. The officials, who for fear of repercussions, asked not to be identified, said the issue of the die-off has become so political that the science and the facts have been lost. Even the number of fish that died is in dispute between state and federal agencies. Numbers ranging between 34,000 and 80,000 have been found in print depending on who you believe.

Even the potential source of mortality is still in question.

It does seem to be agreed upon that disease, warm water and crowded conditions were all contributing factors, although similar run sizes and water flows have occurred in the past with no die-off.

According to the Klamath Water Users Association, they are unaware of any evidence ruling out the possibility that toxic substances may have caused the fish die-off. The California Department of Fish and Game admit that water samples were not taken until seven days after the onset of the die-off and only one fish was collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be tested for tissue analysis of contaminates. This single fish carcass was collected 15 days after the fish began to die.

Some of the facts that are not being reported are that in spite of the die-off, the number of fish returning to Iron Gate hatchery on the Klamath River in 2002, was the third highest in 40 years.

A federal judge in 2003 found conflicting facts about the fish die-off prevented her from concluding that Klamath Project operations caused the death of the fish. Also ignored in the debate is a similar finding made in October 2003 by the National Research Council Committee on Endangered and Threatened Fish in the Klamath Basin.

The final report from the committee failed to find a link between the operation of the Klamath Project and the fish die-off and questioned whether changes in federal project operations at the time would have prevented it.

We can only hope the constructive efforts of communities up and down this basin, here on the ground, can survive the needless diversions caused by the Post article and the predictable regurgitated editorials that always seem to follow this type of overt political stunt, stated Greg Addington, in a statement for the Klamath Water Users Association.

Addington went on to say that some real news is the collaborative multi-party settlement efforts now underway in the Klamath Basin involving irrigators, tribes, conservation groups and dedicated public servants from Oregon, California and the federal government. This group is about solving problems, a task that is hindered by the overtly sensational media.
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