Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: A healthy Klamath River benefits California fisheries and farms

Recent droughts, wildfires and floods throughout the West point to one stark reality: An integrated approach to water management is essential to securing our region’s long-term prosperity. A long history of divvying up water too freely among competing interests has left none satisfied. We continue to live with an over-appropriated water system that pits farmers against fisheries and urban users against agriculture.

If we are to thrive, or even survive, it’s time to step out of our narrow perspectives. We must embrace a more coordinated approach that recognizes that many of our rivers are altered landscapes. Today’s working watersheds provide drinking water, produce hydropower, grow food, provide recreational opportunities and support valuable fisheries for commercial, sport and tribal interests. Saving these working watersheds can no longer mean rewinding them back to some pristine, romantic past. We must instead craft comprehensive and durable water management solutions for the modern world.

This type of integrated thinking is being put to work in the Klamath River Basin, straddling the California-Oregon border. There fishermen and farmers have alternately suffered through severe water shortages. In 2001, tens of millions of dollars in farm productivity was lost when water was diverted to protect migrating salmon. The next year, the water went to the farmers. The result was a record-breaking fish kill on the Klamath River, leaving 70,000 adult salmon dead before they could spawn. That disaster had long-term economic consequences for much of California and Oregon, including widespread fisheries closures in 2006 that cost coastal economies an estimated $200 million.

These conflicts were the result of old ways of thinking. At the time, the belief in the Klamath Basin was that one side could win the “water war,” typically in the courts, at the expense of all others. But history proves that zero-sum thinking cannot create a promising future, either for farmers or for fisheries.

Recognizing this reality, dozens of disparate stakeholder groups worked for years to negotiate a water-sharing deal for the Klamath Basin that would restore healthy salmon populations while providing more water certainty to farmers. These stakeholders negotiated a pair of settlement agreements that would give the basin’s farmers, fishermen, tribes and electricity customers of Pacific Power – which owns several hydroelectric dams on the river – an opportunity to create a stable regional economy.

The Klamath Settlement Agreements dedicate significant resources to river restoration, including unblocking the river and restoring access to more than 420 miles of historic spawning and rearing habitat for steelhead and salmon. Farmers and ranchers helped to craft and continue to support this deal because it provides them with more certainty about how much water they would receive in both wet and dry years.

Although the Klamath Settlement Agreements have been in place since 2010, they cannot be fully implemented without congressional approval. Unfortunately, Congress has been slow to act. But recent efforts signal hope that the agreements are likely to be taken up soon in Washington, D.C.

The 2013 water year was very dry, straining farmers and ranchers, fish and fishermen alike. Without the agreements, more water had to be kept in the Trinity River – a major Klamath River tributary whose water supports California’s Central Valley agriculture – to prevent another massive fish kill. The connection between the Trinity and Klamath rivers underscores the fact that an unhealthy Klamath impacts many Californians.

The Klamath is also intimately linked to the health of coastal fishing economies from Monterey up to Washington state. But without congressional approval of these vitally important agreements, the future of the Klamath will continue to be one of conflict and economic loss, not solutions, with broad implications up and down the West Coast.

A comprehensive Klamath Basin recovery is good for the economies of both California and Oregon. Putting the Klamath Settlement Agreements into action would support a healthier West Coast salmon fishery, provide enhanced water security to farmers and ranchers, and protect tribal trust rights. Throughout the previous decade, the Klamath Basin was in constant conflict. But local stakeholders have made it clear that they are ready for a productive and cooperative future.

With congressional approval, we can implement one of the most important water management, river restoration and economic stabilization efforts in the United States, resulting in 4,600 new jobs and restoring more than $750 million annually in Klamath Basin economic activity. Putting these landmark agreements into action would signal a new day for the Klamath Basin, and light a new path forward for water management throughout the West.