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The Klamath Fish Disaster and Improving the Management of the Wildlife Refuges

Historically, the Klamath Basin in Oregon and California was a vast wetland serving as a vital feeding and resting place for millions of migratory birds and vital habitat for large numbers of salmon. In recent years, however, as a result of the Klamath Irrigation Project, water was diverted away from the Klamath River to irrigate fields devoted to water-intensive crops that could be grown nearly anywhere. The wetlands that were drained and the streams that were dewatered could not be replaced. The birds and fish that depended on the marshes and spawning beds began to disappear.

In 2001, in the face of a debilitating drought, a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of commercial fishermen and environmentalists prodded the Bureau of Reclamation to limit water deliveries to farmers in the basin so that downstream coho salmon had a fighting chance. In the spring of 2002, the Bureau of Reclamation, the government branch charged with giving water to farmers, declared that there was sufficient water for all needs and proceeded to keep most of the water in upstream reservoirs for summer irrigation. This deprived young salmon of the water they needed to make their escape to sea, and jeopardized the coho fry that needed hiding and feeding areas in the streamside vegetation.

In 2002, a federal judge refused to order the bureau to provide water necessary for the immediate survival of young salmon. As the summer of 2002 wore on, the flows released by the federal Bureau of Reclamation declined as more water was diverted to farmers upstream. The water diversions led to a massive die-off of an estimated 33, 000 salmon, steelhead and other fish in the Klamath.

Later that year, a National Marine Fisheries Service scientist argued that his work to assure adequate water levels had been overridden for political purposes. He said that the water level guidelines eventually approved by the federal government were forced on fisheries scientists by the Bureau of Reclamation.

More recently, to the cheers of the families and communities that rely on Klamath salmon, a federal court rejected the Bush administration's water management plan as illegal under the Endangered Species Act for failure to protect the endangered salmon. The ruling in July, 2003 renewed the hopes of fishermen and communities that rely on the salmon and began the process of creating a new plan that allows for more balanced water allocation, that can benefit all the diverse water users of the Klamath Basin.

In 2003, Congress was also given an opportunity to improve management of the Klamath refuge, but rejected the proposal. By a 228 to 197 margin, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to reject a proposal to improve the management of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges by limiting commercial farming on the refuges to less water intensive crops. The Klamath Basin refuges are currently the only refuges in the country where purely commercial farming is allowed.

By a narrow margin, the House voted down language that would have required that farms on the Klamath refuges whose leases expire in the following fiscal year comply with the same rules that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service applies to farming on other wildlife refuges, and reduce their use of water and toxic pesticides. The bipartisan measure was sponsored by Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Mike Thompson (D-CA), and Christopher Shays (R-CT).

In August of 2003, commercial fishermen and environmental groups filed an information request with the federal government seeking documents disclosing White House political pressure on decisions that led to the death of the Klamath River salmon in 2002. The letter sought information fleshing out a Wall Street Journal article stating that President Bush's chief political advisor, Karl Rove, influenced senior government managers in a pending decision regarding how the river's waters should be divvied up over the next ten years.

That decision pitted irrigation interests against the government's obligation to leave enough water in the river to protect salmon. The decision also was supposed to weigh how much water should be left in the river to comply with the government's obligations to sustain Indian tribal fisheries.

In November of 2003, commercial fishermen, Native Americans, and conservationists welcomed the release of a long-awaited report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the causes of the 2002 Klamath River fish kill. The report concluded that low river flows were at the heart of the tragic fish kill, in which over 33, 000 adult salmon perished before they could spawn.