Legislative UPDATE
Klamath River Basin

Ashley McMurray

Recent severe drought in the Klamath River Basin has caused problems for farmers, endangered species, and the U.S. government. The primary factor is that there simply is not enough water to go around. The farmers need it, the fish need it, the birds need it, the plants need it — and the government does not know where to get it.

Background information
In 1906 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation established the Klamath Project in order to make use of barren land in the Klamath River Basin.
The Project provided irrigation for about 204,000 acres in the Basin via the diversion of water flow from three lakes and two rivers (Quinn 1999).
Environmental concerns were expressed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as early as 1912. It observed a decline of birds at the lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, and by 1930 conditions had also deteriorated at Tule Lake's refuge (Quinn 1999). The Bureau of Reclamation, however, ignored these early warnings and proceeded to give the fertilized land to war veterans. It guaranteed water to the veteran farmers for the production of agriculture, which now includes alfalfa, wheat, potatoes, barley, sugar beets, and onions. The number of farmers in the Basin increased to approximately 1,500, and the Basin became so prosperous that, until recently, it provided about $250 million in agriculture, a significant contribution to the region's economy (Herger 2001).
However, the Klamath Basin is also home to several endangered and threatened species. These include the endangered shortnose suckerfish (Chasmistes brevirostris), lost river suckerfish (Deltistes luxatus), and Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), as well as the threatened bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucephalus). The Endangered Species Act (ESA) specifies certain requirements for these species; the suckerfish require lake water levels to be between 4,137 and 4,143 feet, and the salmon need river flow rates of at least 1,300 cubic feet per second (Kepple 2001). Bald eagles feed on waterfowl in the basin, and these prey species also have high water requirements.
The recent drought, though, has drastically reduced water levels and flow rates below these required minimums. Therefore, on April 6, 2001 — in a decision that has come to be known as the "zero water" decision — the Bureau terminated irrigation to the farmers, redirecting it to the lakes and rivers to satisfy the species' habitat requirements (Herger 2001).
Thus a resolution and/or compromise between the farmers' needs and the ESA's requirements is necessary. The arguments for each side are outlined below.