Klamath River Salmon Opponents Inch Toward Compromise
EUREKA, California Two years after more than 35,000 salmon died on the Klamath River due to low water, the different groups fighting over the future of the area are inching toward a so-far elusive goal: compromise.
Groups including American Indian tribes, commercial fishers, and conservationists said they are tired of battling each other and moving closer toward the compromises necessary to find long-term solutions.
About 120 people attended a forum sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson to assess the status of salmon in the Klamath River after the 2002 deaths of between 35,000 to 70,000 fish, mostly adult chinook salmon.
"This was a pretty significant first step," said Thompson, a Democrat. "We heard from both sides. Everybody was singing from the same sheet of music."
Progress has been made, with $16 million spent on habitat restoration, more water released down the Trinity and Klamath rivers, and increased monitoring and research, said Mike Long, a field supervisor from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, the dominant farmers group in the upper basin, and Mike Orcutt of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, which has been battling for water for salmon, joined several representatives of county governments and government agencies who said interest groups were tired of fighting and want a long-term solution.
"I realize we are going to have to sit down with the tribes and reasonable conservation groups, the stakeholders who are really impacted, and come up with a package," Keppen said. "It will take somebody with stature, a governor or somebody with a major portfolio, to bring us together. Right now there is too much litigation, too many press releases. I'm guilty. So are others."
In 2001, Klamath Basin farmers pried open irrigation gates and formed a bucket brigade to dump water into irrigation ditches after the government cut off water to benefit salmon and other fish.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton's subsequent decision to divert water from the Klamath River to 1,400 farms was criticized by environmentalists and tribal leaders, who said it was the reason for the fish kill.
Not all groups were willing to compromise. Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, whose reservation straddles the Klamath River where most of the fish died in 2002, alleges the decision to restore water to farmers rather than devoting it to fish violated tribal trust obligations. Their lawsuit goes to trial next month.
"We are not willing to compromise anymore when you are killing our fish," Fletcher said.
Meanwhile, biologists still don't understand why untold numbers of juvenile salmon succumbed to parasites last spring. Long noted that most of the habitat work since the die-off has been done in tributaries, not the mainstem where chinook spawn.
"Whether improvement means you've flattened out the rate of decline or whether things are improving, I don't think anybody can say that," Long said.
Eureka commercial salmon fisher Dave Bitts warned that the 2002 fish kill could result in so few adults returning to the Klamath in 2005 that fishing seasons would have to be shut down off most of California and Oregon .
Source: Associated Press