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Klamath Basin Crisis


A CONSERVATION VISION FOR THE KLAMATH BASIN

COALITION FOR THE KLAMATH BASIN MARCH 2000

The Klamath Basin

The Klamath Basin is one of the nation’s great ecological treasures. Considered a

“western Everglades,” this area in northern California and southern Oregon once contained some

350,000 acres of shallow lakes, freshwater marshes, wet meadows, and seasonally flooded

basins. The 200-mile long Klamath River was among the most productive salmon rivers in the

west. Lakes and streams in the upper Klamath Basin contained great populations of C’Wam and

Qapdo (i.e., Lost River and Shortnose Suckers) and spring salmon. These fish provided a major

food source for Native tribes. Early white explorers to the Basin were astounded by spectacular

concentrations of ducks, geese, swans, grebes, pelicans, and other birds. Trappers with the

Hudson Bay Company harvested beaver, otter, marten, and other fur-bearing animals here.

Damming and diversion of rivers and draining of wetlands in the upper river basin have

taken an enormous toll on the Klamath Basin’s ecology and wildlife as well as a once robust

lower river fishing economy. More than 75 percent of the Basin’s wetlands have been drained

and converted to agriculture. Logging, grazing, fire suppression, road construction, and other

factors have also impacted the area’s ecology dramatically. The hydrology of the Klamath River

and related streams and lakes has been dramatically altered and water quality has been severely

degraded. Klamath River Coho salmon are listed as a federally threatened species and Kuptu and

Tshuam are now endangered. In some years, water quality from the Upper Klamath has been so

poor that salmon runs far downstream have been destroyed. An estimated 6,870 fishing-dependent

jobs amounting to more than $137 million in total personal income have been lost

from the Klamath Basin economy as a direct result of salmon declines. Fishing jobs from Coos

Bay, Oregon to Fort Bragg, California have been affected (Figure 2). Hundreds of fishing guides

once operated on the Klamath River and fishermen supported numerous businesses, particularly

in the winter steelhead season when logging was inactive. With the decline of the fisheries,

many of the guides and other businesses supported by the fishermen, have gone out of business

or had to diversify into other income areas. White water enthusiasts still use the Klamath River.

However, clients and staff often complain about the water quality of the river.

Even in its diminished form, the Klamath Basin still attracts nearly 80 percent of the

Pacific Flyway’s waterfowl and supports the largest wintering population of bald eagles in the

lower 48 states. Salmon still migrate in the Klamath River and enormous trout still reside in

lakes and streams. The Klamath River Basin can be restored and with it much of the local

fishing-based economy. Ecological restoration in the Klamath Basin can help ensure a healthy economy and

high quality of life in the region. The Klamath River Basin should support vibrant Native American,

sport, and commercial fishing, and wildlife/wildland-oriented recreational opportunities. The

Klamath Basin can also support a healthy agricultural economy that is ecologically sustainable.

**The two maps (Klamath River Basin, and Historic & Current Wetlands in the Klamath

Project Area) are in a separate PDF file.**

A Coalition for the Klamath Basin

The Klamath Basin Coalition is an alliance of local, regional, and national organizations

dedicated to conserving and restoring the Klamath Basin. Founding members include

Institute for Fisheries Resources, Klamath Basin Audubon Society, Klamath Forest

Alliance, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Oregon Chapter Sierra Club, Pacific Coast

Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Water Watch, and The Wilderness Society. We

have pledged to work together to promote and implement the vision and actions

presented here. We have pledged to work together to promote and implement the vision

and actions presented here. We invite constructive feedback from all interested parties

and invite other organizations to join our coalition.

Our vision is to restore a healthy, naturally diverse, and productive Klamath Basin

ecosystem by reestablishing, to as great a degree as feasible, natural hydrological

conditions and ecological functions throughout the entire basin. This should be

accomplished through a comprehensive, ecosystem restoration program.

The goal of these efforts should be to restore “normative” conditions, under which

ecological processes occur under natural patterns of variation, throughout the Klamath

Basin. Restoration efforts must comply fully with the Endangered Species Act and the

Clean Water Act, and satisfy all responsibilities to Native American tribal rights.

Viable populations of native species should be restored to the Basin. Salmon stocks in

the Klamath River should be restored to a level that not only satisfies the requirements of

the Endangered Species Act but also supports Native American tribal rights, and the

commercial and sport fishing economies of the river and coastal communities in Oregon and

California.

Ecological restoration in the Klamath Basin can help ensure a healthy economy and high

quality of life in the region. The Klamath River Basin should support vibrant Native

American, sport, and commercial fishing, and wildlife/wildlands-oriented recreational

opportunities. The Klamath Basin can also support a healthy agricultural economy that is

ecologically sustainable.

Our vision will be advanced by implementing the actions described below. Many of

these actions can be taken cost-effectively, with few impacts to existing uses, and will in

themselves contribute substantially to the regional economy.

ACTION PLAN

I. Reforming the Klamath Project

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s

massive Klamath Project is responsible

for much of the damage to the Basin’s

ecology. Authorized in 1905, the Project

controls the flow of water in the Basin

through an elaborate network of seven

dams, 45 pumping plants, 185 miles of

canals, and 516 miles of lateral ditches.

Because the Project is largely

responsible for the problem, the Project

needs to be reformed.

Actions

1) Fish, wildlife, and ecosystem conservation

and restoration should be an explicit purpose

of the Klamath Project.

Project purposes should be

amended in any legislation concerning

the Klamath Basin.

2) Restorative flows should be provided

in the Klamath River and its tributaries

to meet instream flow needs, while

providing for adequate lake levels in

Upper Klamath Lake and sufficient

water for Klamath Basin National

Wildlife Refuges. Klamath Project

agricultural deliveries should be adjusted

as necessary to help achieve this goal.

3) Suitable screens and fish passage

facilities should be installed on all water

diversions and dams throughout the

Basin. If necessary to provide suitably

fish passage and restore ecological

function, diversions, and dams should be

modified or removed.

4) Water uses that are non-agricultural

and of minimal economic or ecological

the value should be retired.

II. Restoring Fish and Wildlife Habitats

Fish and wildlife habitats throughout the

Klamath Basin has been degraded. An

array of conservation tools including

acquisition of land and water rights,

public land restoration, and conservation

easements can and should be used to

restore fish and wildlife habitats,

improve water quality, increase natural

water storage of wetlands, forests, and

riparian areas and help reestablish the

normative hydrology of the Klamath

River Basin. Many of these mechanisms

would fully compensate landowners in

the process. The highest priority actions

are as follows.

A. Lower Klamath Lake Actions

1) That portion of the former Lower

Klamath Lake which lies north and west

of the Lower Klamath National Wildlife

Refuge (known as the “Klamath Straits”)

should be among the highest priorities

for purchase and restoration. The goal

for this area should be to restore the

normative conditions and functions of

the area.

2) A more natural hydrological regime

should also be restored on lands within

the present boundaries of the Lower

Klamath Refuge. It may be possible for

the refuge to take advantage of peak

the river flows by flooding a greater area of

the refuge in the winter and spring, and

allowing the refuge to gradually release

some of this water back into the river

over the remainder of the year. Restoring

Lower Klamath Lake would improve

habitat conditions for fish and wildlife,

and would also improve water quality,

increase natural water storage, and help

maintain water supplies to farmers in dry

years. Without adequate water supplies,

refuge marshes dry out, threatening

wetlands, wildlife, and the bald eagles

that feed on them. When wetlands are

diminished, waterfowl are forced to

inhabit smaller areas which can increase

the probability of bacterial diseases such

as botulism and avian cholera. These

diseases have been responsible for large

numbers of bird deaths on the refuges.

Ironically, in some years. Scarce water

has been used to irrigate crops on the

refuges even as refuge marshes have

been allowed to go dry.

B. Tule Lake

Actions

1) The normative functions and

processes of Tule Lake should be

restored to the extent feasible.

2) Commercial agriculture within the

refuges should be phased out in an

equitable manner and the lands should

be returned to a natural habitat

condition.

3) Crops such as onions, sugar beets, and

potatoes which are of little or no value to

wildlife and require particularly toxic

pesticides should be eliminated

expeditiously.

Background and Rationale

Tule Lake NWR was established in 1928.

Historically, Tule Lake expanded and

contracted dramatically as a result of

variations inflow from the Lost River,

reaching a maximum size of around

100,000 acres. The pattern of drying and

flooding made Tule Lake particularly

productive for migratory birds and other

wildlife.

Through damming of Clear Lake,

diversion of the Lost River, and diking

and draining, Tule Lake was reduced

drastically in size. In the 1940s, a tunnel

was constructed through Sheepy Ridge,

connecting Tule Lake with Lower

Klamath and enabling further drying of

Tule Lake.

Tule Lake Refuge is 39,100 acres

although only 13,000 are remnant

lake/marsh. The Bureau of Reclamation

leases 15,500 acres to farmers and the

Fish and Wildlife Service has contracts

for farming another 2,000 acres with

farmers who leave a portion of their crop

standing for wildlife. (Figure 3).

The current extent and configuration of

lease lands on the Tule Lake refuge are

an impediment to water storage and

fluctuation of water levels, and

contributes to poor water quality in the

Klamath Basin. The crops are treated

with pesticides that can kill or sicken

wildlife. Row crops (onions, sugar

beets and potatoes), which are of little

or no value to wildlife and require

particularly toxic pesticides are allowed

on up to a quarter of the refuge lease lands.

Even in this greatly diminished state,

Tule Lake NWR was once the most

outstanding refuge in the country for

migratory waterfowl and other wildlife.

Unfortunately, over time artificially

stabilized water levels, sedimentation,

poor choice of crops grown, and

contamination from agricultural run-off

have degraded the quality of Tule Lake’s

habitat and reduced the abundance and

diversity of its wildlife.

High concentrations of nitrogen,

phosphorus, and un-ionized ammonia,

low levels of dissolved oxygen, and

extreme pH levels are among the

problems that have been identified in the

Tule Lake refuge. According to at least

one study, the refuges’ water is known to

be toxic to frog embryos, resulting in

death and malformations. Botulism and

avian cholera are also serious problems

for the refuges’ waterfowl populations.

C. Upper Klamath Wetlands Actions

1) Additional drained wetlands around

Upper Klamath Lake should be restored

to wetlands. Efforts by The Nature

Conservancy to restore nearly 4,000

acres of the Tulana Farms property and

the Bureau of Land Management to

restore more than 3,000 acres of the

Wood River Ranch property is an

important start. These projects will

restore fish and wildlife habitat, improve

water quality, and increase natural water

storage within the restored wetlands.

2) The Bureau of Reclamation’s

acquisition of the 7,000-acre Agency

Lake Ranch provides an important

opportunity to restore wetlands habitat

and improve water quality. The Bureau

should refrain from operating this

property merely for deepwater storage.

If managed appropriately, the land can

provide natural water storage, wildlife

habitat, and water quality benefits.

Background and Rationale

Historically the 133-square mile Upper

Klamath Lake was fringed with more

than 80,000 acres of wetlands.

However, diking and draining of these

marshes to promote cattle grazing and

farming has eliminated more than three

fourths of these wetlands. The loss of

wetlands and runoff of cattle waste

contributes to the severely degraded

water quality in Upper Klamath Lake.

The majority of wetlands that remain

around Upper Klamath Lake are within

the 14,400-acre Upper Klamath National

Wildlife Refuge. Efforts by federal

agencies, conservation organizations,

and private landowners have shown that

drained wetlands in this area can be

restored.

D. Riparian Restoration Actions

1) Streamside riparian areas in the

Williamson, Sprague, and Wood Rivers

north of Upper Klamath Lake, in the

Shasta and Scott River sub-basins, and

in other high priority areas throughout

the Basin needs to be protected and

restored through land and water rights

purchases, conservation easements to

exclude cattle, and other means.

2) Many common land uses need to be

re-evaluated and their impact on riparian

areas reduced and mitigated.

3) Additional riparian restoration

projects will improve fish and wildlife

habitat and water quality, and increase

natural storage capacity of the riparian

areas. Oregon Trout’s efforts to restore

normative functions to an important

the stretch of the Wood River is proving to

be highly beneficial.

Background and Rationale

Destruction of riparian areas throughout

the Klamath Basin has damaged streams

and wildlife habitat, degraded water

quality and reduced natural water

storage. Throughout the basin, loss of

protective riparian vegetation has to lead to

elevated water temperatures beyond the

preferred temperature ranges of

salmonids and other native fish, and to

high sediment loads.

E. Forest Management

Actions

1) Uplands should be managed to restore

normative hydrological functions, and

reduce excessive sediment loading of

streams. Managers should work to

reduce run-off, increase infiltration, and

increase the storage capacity of upland soils.

2) Additional funding should be

provided for road decommissioning in

priority watersheds within the Basin.

3) Restoration forestry, focused on areas

in which past management has harmed

ecosystem health can be an important

tool for restoring normative ecological

processes in the Klamath Basin.

Riparian areas in particular should

receive additional protections.

4) All remaining roadless areas on the

federal public lands of 1,000 acres or

more should be protected from road

building, logging, or other developments

that could harm their ecological health,

alter hydrology, or further impair water

quality.

Background and Rationale

Management of National Forest lands

has a direct impact on the hydrology,

water quality, and fish and wildlife

habitats of the Klamath Basin. Past

logging and road-building activity has

reduced the forests’ natural water

storage function increased runoff, and

led to increased sediment loading and

degradation of streams. Independent

scientific panels studying the

effectiveness of logging rules for private

timberlands in both states have

concluded that current rules are

insufficient to prevent extinctions.

III. Restoring Hydrology and Flows

Damming and diversion of rivers, and

draining of wetlands has dramatically

altered the hydrology of the Klamath

River. Logging, grazing, road

construction and other land uses have

contributed to the problem.

The following actions should be taken to

restore the normative hydrology and

flows in the Klamath River.

Actions

1) Restorative flows must be provided in

the Klamath River and its tributaries to

meet instream flow needs for fish and

wildlife while providing for adequate

lake levels in Upper Klamath Lake and

sufficient water for Klamath Basin

National Wildlife Refuges. Klamath

Project agricultural deliveries should be

adjusted as necessary to help achieve

this goal.

2) Natural storage capacity of Upper

Klamath Lake, Lower Klamath Lake,

and Tule Lake should be increased

through the restoration of normative

wetland/lake systems in these basins.

Options for off-stream water storage

should be studied, and implemented if

environmentally sound.

3) Water conservation measures should

be aggressively pursued so that water

conflicts can be reduced. A basin-wide

the water conservation plan, with

accompanying water use efficiency

standards should be developed and

implemented. The Reclamation Reform

Act of 1982’s requirement that project

users develop and implement water

conservation plans should be enforced.

Water saved through conservation

should not be appropriated for new uses,

but should be used to meet instream and

refuge needs.

4) All ground and surface water users in

the Klamath Basin should be required to

install and maintain measurement

devices that allow for the

determination of actual water use. All

water users should also be required to

report their water use on an established

schedule. A water rights enforcement

strategy that effectively detects and

penalizes violators, and encourages

compliance should be implemented

throughout the basin. These measures

can reduce illegal and wasteful water

uses and measure progress in meeting

instream flow needs.

5) Dry year fallowing, the retirement of

water uses, and acquisition and transfer

of water rights from willing sellers to

conservation purposes are all necessary

tools that should be funded, promoted,

and utilized throughout the basin in

order to meet instream, lake level, and

refuge needs.

6) The potential for conjunctive use of

groundwater should be investigated.

7) Authorization and funding should be

provided for the timely completion of a

comprehensive flow study in the

Klamath Basin and all sub-basins.

Priorities should include the Klamath

mainstem, Shasta, and Scott Rivers.

8) Water needs for the basin should be

analyzed, planned, and addressed as a

whole, regardless of state and local

jurisdictional divisions. Fragmentation

of basin planning across artificial

boundaries and among innumerable

agencies merely generate political turf-wars,

gridlock and waste. Existing

institutions for basin-wide planning and

coordinated restoration efforts should be

supported and strengthened.

Background and Rationale

Water is a precious and controversial

commodity in the Klamath Basin. While

water is vital to maintaining the

the ecological integrity of the Klamath

Basin and in supporting tribal trust

resources and commercial and sport

fisheries, the dominant use of water in

the Klamath Basin remains irrigated

agriculture.

Historically, the flow regime in the

Klamath River was somewhat unique in

that the difference between peak flows in

the winter and low flows in the fall was

proportionally less than for most western

rivers. This was a result of the large

natural storage capacity of Upper

Klamath Lake and Lower Klamath Lake.

Damming and diversion of rivers,

draining of wetlands, and establishment

of irrigated agriculture in the upper

Klamath Basin has had a pronounced

effect on the hydrology of the Klamath

River. Logging, grazing, road

construction and other land uses on

surrounding uplands have contributed to

the problem. Peak flows in the winter

and spring months are now greater than

historically and low flows in the summer

and fall months are greatly diminished.

(Figure 5).

Seasonal shortages of water result in the

failure to meet the full array of water

needs. Water withdrawals have

contributed to the decline and listing

under the Endangered Species Act of

resident and anadromous fish, to the

failure of streams and lakes to meet

water quality and temperature standards,

and to the nonfulfillment of Native

American senior reserved rights. The

wildlife refuges rank last in the basin’s

fiercely contested water allocation

scheme and are in need of a secure

source of water.

IV. Water Quality

The Klamath River and several of its

tributaries have been listed by the federal

Environmental Protection Agency as

water quality “impaired” under the

Clean Water Act. The following actions

should be taken to improve water quality

in the Klamath Basin.

Actions

1) Interstate TMDLs (total maximum

daily loads) should be established and

implemented for the Lost and Klamath

Rivers. This should be the highest water

quality priority of the U.S. EPA, Oregon

DEQ, and California Water Quality

Control Board Northcoast Region.

2) Log storage in the Klamath River

should be terminated and other activities

that negatively impact water quality

should be altered or mitigated. The

feasibility and benefits to water quality

from removing accumulated bark from

the river and lake bottom should be

investigated.

3) Land management modifications, land

and water rights acquisition, and

conservation easements envisioned in

various sections of this document as

means to restore fish and wildlife

habitats and restore hydrology should be

implemented because they will also

result in substantial improvements to

water quality.

4) The Clean Water Act’s prohibitions

on new discharges, for example, new

sewer hook-ups and industrial discharge

permits into impaired waterways must

be enforced.

Background and Rationale

Because it emanates from an old and

therefore nutrient-rich lake system, the

Klamath River is naturally nutrient-rich

as compared to most other northwest

salmon rivers. This may have been

partially responsible for the traditionally

high salmonid production of the river

the system, which historically ranked behind

only the Columbia and Sacramento-San

Juaquin systems. However, a

combination of factors, including

conversion of wetlands for agriculture,

reduction in flow due to water diversion,

agricultural drainage and point source

chemical pollution, have resulted in

super-nitrification of Klamath Lake and

the Klamath River. Nutrient loads

emanating from the upper Klamath

Basin is intensified when the Shasta

and Scott tributaries join the Klamath

River in California. These watersheds

have extensive agricultural drainage high

in nitrate fertilizers and animal wastes.

The Klamath River is listed by the

federal Environmental Protection

Agency as water quality “impaired”

because of low dissolved oxygen,

excessive nutrients and algae blooms,

and extremely high water temperatures.

Pesticide contamination may also be a

major problem. Multiple-fish kills,

including kills of endangered Kuptu and

Tshuam (i.e., Lost River and Shortnose

Suckers) in the Upper Basin are an

annual event and the killing has spread

to the Lower Basin affecting salmon,

steelhead and other fish species. The

Lost River and Shasta River area also

listed as water quality impaired.

The State of Oregon is obligated under a

1986 federal court consent decree to

develop a plan for reducing nutrients in

the Klamath River. This was supposed

to be completed by 1996. However, the

first plan called a Total Maximum Daily

Load (TMDL) in the parlance of the

Clean Water Act, was rejected by the

federal Environmental Protection

Agency as insufficient. Implementation

of a plan to reduce nutrient pollution in

the Klamath Basin is urgently needed.

This vision and action plan for the Klamath Basin was prepared by A Coalition for the Klamath Basin. The document was produced by The Wilderness Society.

THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY

900 17 th Street, NW

Washington, DC 20006

THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY

424 Fourth Ave., Ste. 816

Seattle, WA 98101-2217

1-800-THE-WILD www.wilderness.org 

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