Klamath Basin Coalition Briefing Paper

There are Real Solutions to the Problems
in the Klamath River Basin

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In recent years, the drought-prone Klamath River Basin has experienced a perpetual crisis over competing demands for water. After near-record drought struck the region in 2001, federal authorities curtailed federal irrigation deliveries by nearly one-third to protect threatened salmon and endangered lake fish, and the protests of enraged irrigators filled the national media. Another dry year followed in 2002, but this time federal agencies chose to provide full irrigation deliveries at the expense of fish and wildlife, and suppressed or ignored warnings of ecological disaster from their own biologists. The grisly images of over 33,000 dead salmon clogging the Klamath River–broadcast across the country–followed soon after.

Now this year also is shaping up to be another drought year, but the many Oregon and California communities dependent upon the Klamath’s resources can little afford to continue lurching from one water crisis to the next.

In the debate over how to balance the many demands for water in the Klamath, one fact is certain: the federal government has promised too much of this precious resource to too many interests. Any long-term solution to the Basin’s woes must focus on reducing the demand for water to bring demand into balance with supply. The federal government must provide leadership and a large financial investment in the Klamath Basin to: 1) restore ecosystem health; 2) meet the needs of endangered species; 3) meet tribal trust obligations; 4) recover salmon and lake fish to harvestable levels; 5) ensure robust, year-round habitat on the Basin’s national wildlife refuges; 6) meet water quality standards; and 7) achieve a sustainable level of agriculture in a fair and equitable manner. The national significance of the Basin and its spectacular resources, as well as the many federal commitments and obligations in the region, fully justify such an investment.

The following outlines some real solutions to problems Congress must endeavor to resolve in the Klamath Basin:

Problem: Too much water has been promised to too many people, and the Klamath River Basin can no longer support current irrigation demands as well as meet the needs of fish, wildlife, and the communities and economies that depend upon these resources.

Problem: Poor state and federal water management has degraded natural habitat and water quality throughout the Klamath Basin, jeopardizing the survival and spawning success of salmon and lake fish, while tainting public drinking water supplies.

Problem: The massive fish kill of September 2002 was not an isolated event. In most years, salmon die-offs occur in both spring and late summer in the Lower Klamath River, due primarily to insufficient deliveries of water by the Bureau of Reclamation to the lower river.

Problem: Commercial agriculture on the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges contradicts the purpose of the refuges, drastically reduces essential habitat, uses toxic pesticides, harms refuge-dependent waterfowl, endangered lake fish, and other wildlife, and displaces over 100,000 acre-feet of water storage capacity needed to sustain year-round refuge habitat.

Problem: The irrigator-centric management of the federal Klamath Irrigation Project ignores the often-devastating impact of Project operations on the ecology, economies, and communities of the entire Klamath Basin.

Problem: Irrigation systems in the Upper Klamath Basin waste over 60% of the water withdrawn for irrigation purposes, and there is no system to monitor water use.

Problem: Large-scale out-of-basin water transfers from the Klamath to the Sacramento and Rogue basins only exacerbate water conflicts and environmental degradation in the Klamath Basin.

Problem: Scientific studies essential for informed policy decisions in the Klamath Basin remain unfunded and uncompleted.

Problem: Two federal advisory committees currently divide the Klamath region into Upper and Lower basins, frequently work at cross purposes, and are not positioned to generate Basin-wide solutions.

Problem: The fisheries and recreation-dependent communities of the Mid- and Lower Klamath River region were hit hard by the massive salmon die-off of 2002, but have received no relief.

Problem: Despite the frequency of drought in the Klamath Basin, only about 10% of Klamath Project irrigators held crop insurance before the 2001 drought.

(last updated 5/15/03)

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