VOICES: Klamath Water Deal

Dear Two Rivers Tribune,

Your report on the new Klamath Water Deal in the March 18th edition did a good job describing the trade-offs leaders of the Klamath Tribes are willing to make in pursuing their joint goals of restoring tribal fisheries and getting into the timber business. As with the KBRA before, these tribal leaders are pursuing what they believe is the best interest of tribal members. As duly elected leaders, that is both their right and their duty. Your report does not, however, explore the basic premise on which the deal is based: the idea that one can substitute “restoration” for water flows in streams.

Granted by the Supreme Court and quantified by the State of Oregon, the Klamath Tribes hold first-in-time rights to specific flows in streams which empty into Upper Klamath Lake. Those rights have been quantified based on the amount needed to keep tribal fisheries in good condition. Never warm to tribal water rights, the State of Oregon worked hard to make sure the in-stream rights granted the Klamath Tribes were the minimum that would sustain tribal fisheries.

So what happens when minimum in-stream flows for fish are further reduced in order to accomplish other tribal objectives? As with the KBRA and several other western water deals involving tribes with fishing rights, the assumption is that it is OK to trade away in-stream rights because one can substitute funding for “restoration” for the missing flows.

The assumption that “restoration” can effectively substitute for actual wet water is unproven. In fact, history indicates that the assumption is most likely wrong. In the Klamath River Basin, for example, large scale efforts to “restore” salmon fisheries began with passage of the Klamath Act in 1986. Since then, tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been expended in the Shasta and Scott River Valleys to “restore” salmon. Restoration has focused on those two valleys because they have the greatest potential to produce salmon. The Shasta should be the Basin’s stronghold for Spring Chinook and the Scott should be the Basin stronghold for Coho.

Nearly 30 years of salmon “restoration” in those valleys has, however, not restored salmon. Instead, Spring Chinook have failed to return and Coho have continued to decline toward extirpation/extinction.

The large investment in Shasta and Scott River salmon restoration proceeded even as more and more wells were drilled, more and more water was extracted and diverted for irrigation. Increased agricultural water consumption has meant less and less water in-stream for fish.

The lesson should be clear: “restoration” – no matter how well designed and how well meaning – is no substitute for actual wet water in-stream. But this basic fact has not been recognized by most western tribal governments. Instead the allure of restoration dollars and the tribal jobs those dollars bring, combined with the urging of federal and state officials, has convinced most western tribal leaders that they can trade away water rights (or the right to exercise those rights which amounts to the same thing) without abandoning the goal of restored tribal fisheries.

After having completed a deal with Shasta River irrigators, the Karuk Tribe is now meeting with irrigators from the Scott River Valley in an attempt to find common ground. If a deal is made, it will most likely follow what is now a well established pattern: irrigators will continue to dewater the Scott River in exchange for increased tribal control of “restoration” funding and jobs.

I wonder how many deals of this type our salmon can survive.

Felice Pace
Klamath California

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April 15th, 2014


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