A little historical perspective on Klamath water flows

We call the press approvingly, “the first Draft of History,” but it’s a pretty lousy Draft of History that has no historical perspective whatsoever.
Consider the current AP story out about how tribes along the Klamath River and the federal Bureau of Reclamation are calling in their very senior water rights on the river during a drought year, which will curtail irrigation in that little political darling of a rural valley, the Klamath River Basin. This basin was made famous by a Karl Rove-Dick Cheney operation in 2002 to save its rich ranchers from the ravages of Indians, the federal government and them damn environmentalists and, incidently, drum up a little more political support in rural counties around the nation for Republican candidates in the midterm elections.
The environmental damage, as reported in the article from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, along with state and federal natural resource agency reports, was horrific. And, lest we forget, it was as if in Bush-Cheney Times, the more fish that died the better.
Badlands Journal editorial board
Sacramento Bee 
Klamath Tribes and feds exercise water rights…Jeff Bernard, Associated Press
GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Tens of thousands of acres in Oregon's drought-stricken Klamath Basin will have to go without irrigation water this summer after the Klamath Tribes and the federal government exercised newly confirmed powers that put the tribes in the driver's seat over water use - a move ranchers fear will be economically disastrous.
Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Mike Connor said Monday that they were making what is known as a "call" on their water rights for rivers flowing into Upper Klamath Lake in Southern Oregon.
The tribes are maintaining river flows for fish, while the bureau is using its water for the Klamath Reclamation Project, a federal irrigation project covering 225,000 acres along the Oregon-California border south of Klamath Falls. Wildlife refuges fed from the project are an important nesting and feeding area for migrating waterfowl.
"Our water rights are essential to the protection of our treaty resources," Gentry said in a statement. "I think everyone knows the tribes are committed to protecting our treaty fisheries, and this is an important step in that direction."
The new powers were made possible by a March ruling of an administrative law judge confirming the tribes have the oldest water rights in the upper basin - and therefore have first say over controlling it.
The calls authorized the local water master, who works for the Oregon Department of Water Resources, to start checking river flows and telling ranchers with junior rights to turn off pumps and shut headgates on diversion dams until enough water remains in the rivers to meet the bureau and tribes' rights. That process is likely to take several weeks. The state Department of Water Resources sent in extra personnel so three two-person teams will handle the shutoffs. Each team will notify the sheriff where they are at all times for safety. As the summer continues and rivers continue to drop, even more ranches will be shut off.
The action plays into a continuing political battle over removing three hydroelectric dams owned by Pacificorp on the Klamath River to allow salmon to return to the upper basin to spawn. Ranchers in the upper basin are split between those who support a companion settlement that would have eased water tensions, and those who bet on the legal process to give them senior water rights.
Rancher Becky Hyde, who favored settlement talks, said the call was no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention since the 2001 drought shut off water to project farmers, but still would be devastating.
"We've been wracking our brains trying to figure out where there might be additional potential grazing lands," she said. "My understanding is we've kind of got drought conditions across the state, so grass is tight already. So it's pretty much a nightmare, is what it is."
It would cost some $27 million to feed hay to the more than 70,000 cattle in the area affected by the calls, and because Congress has not enacted a new Farm Bill, there is no federal disaster aid available to ranchers, she said.
The combined water calls would shut off all their surface water irrigation, and might affect some wells, Hyde said. She and her husband shipped some of their cattle to family ranches, and figured they had enough pasture to feed the rest for six more weeks before starting to buy hay, which they normally don't do until November.
Klamath County Commissioner Tom Mallams, himself an irrigator, has warned there could be violence. Cattle rancher Roger Nicholson has said shutting off irrigation would be an economic disaster, because ranchers will have nowhere else to feed their herds. Both men oppose dam removal and the accompanying settlement.
Gentry and Connor both said the calls highlighted the value of negotiated settlements that would make it unnecessary to go through the water rights process.
The upper basin covers 138,000 acres around the communities of Fort Klamath, Chiloquin and Sprague River in the area of the tribes' former reservation, most of it irrigated pasture that feeds more than 100,000 head of cattle. Though the federal government took away the reservation in the 1950s, courts have determined the tribes retained their hunting, fishing and water rights, dating to time immemorial.
The bureau's rights date to 1905, when the Klamath Reclamation Project started drawing water from the lake. The refuge water rights date between 1928 and 1964.
The bureau has estimated that the combined calls would require irrigation shutoffs to 58,000 acres.
The region is struggling with drought after a dry winter left little snow in the mountains, which feeds the basin's rivers and the lake.
The tribes are using their water to maintain flows in the Wood, Williamson, Sprague and Sycan rivers for fish. They include endangered suckers held sacred by the tribes, redband tout, and ultimately salmon, if dams on the Klamath River are removed.
Even with the water resulting from the call, the bureau will have only two-thirds of the water it needs from the Klamath Project, leading to some cutbacks there.
The actions reverse the roles from 2001, when the bureau had to shut off irrigation to most of the project to protect fish, but cattle ranchers in the upper basin still had water to irrigate their pastures.






Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Cheney's role in fish kill probed 2002 Klamath River disaster
Water policy change led to deaths of 68,000 salmon
By Guy Kovner



Five years after a devastating fish kill on Northern California's Klamath River, and 2,500 miles away in Washington, the political repercussions are intensifying.
North Coast fishermen and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, are applauding a House committee chairman's decision to investigate Vice President Dick Cheney's involvement in the deaths of 68,000 migrating chinook salmon in fall 2002.
"We know where the smoking gun lays," said Chris Lawson, a fisherman and president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman's Marketing Association.
While the salmon kill, the largest ever in the West, long has been attributed to Bush administration decisions, a Washington Post story last month detailed Cheney's successful effort to rewrite federal water policy for alleged political gain.
The resulting diversion of water to Klamath basin farmers and ranchers who were battling a drought lowered the river's flow and set the stage for the fish kill.
"Characteristically, Cheney left no tracks," the Post reported.
The same day the story was published, Thompson and 35 other Democrats from California and Oregon called for a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee to zero in on Cheney's actions. A day later, Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., agreed.
"They say a fish rots from the head down," Thompson said, applying an old aphorism to the episode that left thousands of rotting salmon carcasses in the lower Klamath. In this case, he said, the head is Cheney's.
Thompson's political role in the controversy goes back to a hot day in October 2002. That's when he piled 500 pounds of odorous, dead Klamath salmon in front of the Interior Department, accusing the agency of "gross mismanagement" in the wildlife disaster.
No date has been set for the hearing, nor have any witnesses been determined, said Allyson Groff, a Natural Resources Committee staffer.
A Cheney aide dismissed the matter, saying in an e-mail that it was "disappointing the Democrats would rather investigate than legislate."
The Post stories were "a repackaging of old accusations," said Megan McGinn, a deputy press secretary.
Asked if Cheney, who has a penchant for secrecy, would appear before the committee, she said: "I'll decline to comment on hypotheticals."
Lawson, a salmon fisherman, said he hopes the hearing will underscore the White House's involvement in the fish kill, which prompted a federal declaration that the 2006 salmon season was a failure.
He said he believes the Bush administration ignored the water policy to protect Klamath fish and instead just said, "Let's open the gates and give it to the farmers."
Thompson said the reduced river flow "wasn't about salmon or water, it was about electoral votes in Oregon."
The Post reported that Cheney, a few months after taking office in 2001, recognized the importance of mollifying Republican farmers in Oregon, a state he and George Bush had lost by less than half of 1 percent in the 2000 presidential election.
Federal biologists had determined that Klamath fish needed more water, and Cheney secured a National Academy of Sciences report overruling that finding. Then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton flew out to Oregon to open the gate, sending water to the farmers.
Last year, a federal judge prohibited the government from diverting Klamath water for agricultural use whenever water levels dropped beneath a certain point.
At the same time, fishermen were hit with the most restrictive salmon season on record for Oregon and California in 2006, and the commercial catch was 12 percent of a typical year.
Last fall, the return of 2-year-old salmon jacks to the Klamath was the second-largest run on record, a promising indicator for the 2007 migration. Biologists expect more than 500,000 adult chinooks will swim up the Klamath this fall, about five times the number from last year.
But until the season's salmon harvest is totaled, it's too soon to assess the health of the fish's ocean population, said Marc Heisdorf, a California Department of Fish and Game biologist.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.