Few Klamath answers

February 21, 2003 12:00 am
Sue Ellen Wooldridge of the Department of the Interior addresses questions during Wednesday's meeting of the Klamath River Basin Fisheries Task Force in Brookings. (Fred Obee/The Daily Triplicate).
Sue Ellen Wooldridge of the Department of the Interior addresses questions during Wednesday's meeting of the Klamath River Basin Fisheries Task Force in Brookings. (Fred Obee/The Daily Triplicate).

By Laura Brown

Triplicate staff writer

The burden of finding solutions for the Klamath Basin watershed lies on the shoulders of all the stakeholders, not the federal government, said a representative of the Department of Interior at a Klamath Task Force meeting yesterday.

"The commonality is everyone wants solutions. Nothing is off the table. We need a mechanism frankly. I don't think you really want the federal government to play God," said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, deputy chief of staff of the Department of the Interior.

Wooldridge was present at the task force meeting held in Brookings to give a progress report on the Klamath Basin Federal Working Group. The working group was established last year by President Bush to examine the basin and develop a broad understanding of all the issues.

"I think what needs to happen is not from the federal government but from the basin itself," reiterated Dave Sabo of the Bureau of Reclamation. "It's not enough, Dave," came a quick retort from a man seated nearby.

With spring planting just around the corner and very little snowpack on the mountains, a fear of disaster striking for a third year in a row resounded during the public comment period. For now, it looks as if operations will continue to go according to the current ten-year management plan until new scientific evidence surfaces.

The National Research Council's final report on the needs of endangered species in the Klamath watershed, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's report on last fall's fish-kill, is expected to be released "soon."

"The year will begin, without a doubt, with the current biological opinion," said Wooldridge. "I expect one way or another, the NRC report will send the Bureau of Reclamation back into a reconsultation situation."

The current ten-year biological opinion has come under fire since it was enacted last spring. Critics say it poses dangerously low flows for migrating Klamath River fish.

Limited funds are holding back the federal government's ability to step in and offer aid, said Wooldridge, who says she is in support of legislation that attempts to mitigate losses felt by those in the basin. "It's always a budget issue. We have things we can't support because of administration priorities," said Wooldridge.

Will the administration shift its focus from the upper to the lower Klamath Basin? Does the Department of Interior plan to appeal Judge Oliver Wanger's Trinity River decision and how will Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing of PacifiCorp's dams on the river come into play with water management decisions? These were a handful of questions asked of Wooldridge.

She admitted that the vast geography of the Klamath-Trinity basin poses a difficult hurdle and also that Wanger's timeline for coming up with years' worth of data in a few short months is near impossible. "We need to figure out a way to bring more resources to it."

Wooldridge did not say whether or not Norton would file an appeal against the judges ruling, but acknowledged that putting together material too hastily could very well lead to more lawsuits.

Other highlights of the daylong meeting included details of the Barnes Ranch Water Storage Project. The land is adjacent to the Agency Lake Ranch, bought by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1998 for water storage purposes.

So far, Agency Lake has been capable of supplying an extra 10,000 acre-feet, at most, because filling the reservoir any higher causes flooding on the bordering Barnes Ranch. If the land acquisition goes through, water-holding capabilities could be expanded to as much as 50,000 acre-feet in wet years.

The catch is that, in dry and critically dry years when the water is most needed, there would be no overflow from Upper Klamath Lake.

"I'm going to be honest with you. In critically dry years, we're all screwed. I'm not proposing to solve all the problems with this project," said Rich McIntyre of the American Land Conservancy (ALC) and Klamath Upper Basin Working Group.

Another problem, is that to purchase the $9.1 million property, congressional approval is needed and delegates are not hearing the support required to make the deal happen.

"This project will not occur without support. It is the low-hanging fruit that exists. American Land Conservancy cannot make this water available itself," said McIntyre.

Another parcel, known as Swan Lake, being eyed by ALC, could provide 30,000 acre-feet of new, non-Klamath Project water for downstream delivery.

The new water storage possibilities look promising to nearly everyone. A few participants in yesterday's meeting claimed they were approaching the ventures cautiously. Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council questioned water quality impacts.

Dan Keppen of the Klamath Water Users Association isn't entirely convinced the land sales are the best solution. "We definitely support the concept of Barnes, we don't know how the merits of this project match up with other projects. It sounds pretty affordable to me, but compared to what?"

"I don't think we can wait. Farmers are dropping like flies. We're headed for a train wreck that makes 2001 look like a walk in the park," said McIntyre.

The meeting concluded with a presentation of fish-kill results by California Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife. George Guillen of Fish and Wildlife did not divulge if flow levels would be included in the upcoming report.

The task force meeting continues today from 8 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. Dave Sabo of the Bureau of Reclamation will discuss planning for the 2003 Klamath Project Operations at 9:30 a.m., followed by the status of Klamath Hydropower Relicensing by Todd Olson of PacifiCorp at 10:30 a.m.