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Klamath bird crisis just one more avoidable tragedy if we pass water-sharing agreements

Posted by Renee Magyar on April 16, 2012

Passing Klamath legislation is necessary to avoiding further wildlife crises.

LowerKlamathNWR_USFWS-file-photo
Geese at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge; USFWS File photo.

Op Ed: Martin Goebel

Oregon Live

April 16, 2012

The recent front-page Oregonian story about 10,000-plus birds dying of cholera reports a tragedy exacerbated by lack of water on important wetlands in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex ("Klamath water wars claim 10,000 birds," April 6). The story is even more tragic because this is yet another Klamath crisis that could be prevented. After the total shutoff of water to the Klamath Project farmers in 2001, the death of tens of thousands of salmon in 2002 and the nonexistent commercial salmon fishing season in 2006, the 2010 Klamath agreements were designed to prevent rotating water crises.

Last fall, Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced legislation to enact the Klamath agreements, including comprehensive water-sharing and development measures that address local environmental and economic needs. Under the bill and the agreements that underpin it, during dry years like this one, the refuges would receive far more water than they currently do. For the first time ever, the refuges would count on a reliable and sizable water allocation -- something they have not had since they were created 100 years ago.

The broken water allocation system in the basin currently pits diverse water interests -- whether tribal people, farmers and ranchers, commercial fishermen or conservation groups -- against each other almost every year. What's notable about the Klamath agreements is that improvements for one interest -- say the refuges -- don't come from a "zero-sum game" system that fixes one problem by creating another. If implemented, the agreements would provide more annual water certainty to Klamath farmers and refuges, and better water management for both endangered salmon and sucker.

It is frustrating to witness yet another crisis when locally designed, comprehensive solutions like the agreements are ready to be implemented. Over many years of hard work, thorough analysis and tough compromises, an unprecedented group of water users found common ground and did the hard work to develop new water allocation methods that allow all stakeholders to benefit.

The crisis on the refuges is not over: More bird migrations happen in the summer and fall. Tourism will drop, and along with it, the millions of dollars that come from visitation focused on fish and wildlife. Klamath Project farmers will also face problems this year. Until the rains picked up, it looked like there would again be bankruptcies and longer lines at the local food bank. And as we write, it looks like irrigation deliveries will be about 20 percent less than normal, continuing a cycle of economic blows to a rural community that already faces significant economic challenges.

When the Lower Klamath wildlife refuges were created under President Theodore Roosevelt, the vision was that agriculture and birds should co-exist. The Klamath agreements take on that responsibility with comprehensive water-sharing solutions.

We must recognize and support the courageous leadership demonstrated by the local Klamath Basin people who have put aside their differences and worked for years to arrive at balanced fixes, guided by an interest in sustaining all of the Basin's diverse and valuable communities, including birds and fish. Their achievements have earned widespread support, from editorial boards across Oregon, California and the nation to a broad diversity of local, regional and national conservation groups. Now we need help from Congress -- and especially the leadership of Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Greg Walden -- to help us move Klamath legislation and ensure that these crises don't happen -- predictably -- next year.

Martin Goebel is the president of Sustainable Northwest in Portland.