In Northwest water clash, a push to talk

A 'summit' may be held to address fishing, farming, and environmental concerns in the Klamath River Basin.

"Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends." So sang (with irony) the young ladies in the musical "Oklahoma!" as the young men brawled at a country dance.

A variation on that tune might be the anthem of the Klamath River Basin in Oregon and California, as farmers and fishermen work out their relationship in an era of troubled community economics and limited natural resources in parts of the American West. Except in this case, they really do have growing concern for each other's livelihood as the region sorts through its longstanding problem of allocating contested water supplies.

Farmers who rely on irrigation at the headwaters of the Klamath, and downstream commercial fishermen who gather their catch in the area where the river empties into the Pacific, are being urged to change their work and way of life to benefit endangered fisheries.

Some of this involves the work of the Nature Conservancy and other means of purchasing development rights – irrigation allotments in the case of farmers, fishing permits and even boats in the case of fishermen. But it's a complicated business also involving sovereign Indian tribes with treaty rights including water: those who traditionally harvest what have become greatly diminished suckerfish populations in Klamath Lake in Oregon, and Pacific Coast tribes in California that fish for dwindling salmon stocks.

Now, the US departments of Interior, Commerce, and Agriculture, plus the White House Council on Environmental Quality, are being asked to hold a regional "summit" out here to address longstanding water issues in the Klamath Basin. Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon – through whose sprawling, mostly rural district the Klamath flows – is organizing the effort.

Watershed event in 2001

The need has been building at least since 2001, when the US Bureau of Reclamation announced that no water would be available for irrigation that summer due to drought and the needs of endangered and other species in and around national wildlife refuges along the Oregon- California border. This year, federal authorities have severely limited commercial salmon fishing along 700 miles of the US Pacific Coast.

Referring to both episodes as "crises," Representative Walden wrote to Bush administration officials last week, "The cost to the environment and affected farmers, ranchers, fishermen and their communities is enormous, threatening the economy of the areas and causing great despair among residents."

Getting all parties together at a high-level meeting is the kind of thing Bill Clinton did shortly after his first election – when he brought then-Vice President Al Gore and what seemed like half the cabinet to Portland, Ore., to deal with the forest crisis over the northern spotted owl.

Getting everybody together in collaborative fashion is what former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt tried to do on other Western resource issues during the Clinton years. But it seems atypical of this administration, which clearly sided with agriculture over environmental and downriver interests during the long, hot summer of 2001 when farmers and ranchers symbolically defied federal marshals by opening irrigation head gates. A year later, irrigators got the water, and tens of thousands of salmon died from disease due to low, warm river flows.

It remains to be seen whether or not the "Summit on the Klamath River Basin," as Walden calls it, happens. "We're still waiting to hear from the administration," says Matt Daigle, an aide to Walden. "But all early indicators have been favorable."

If nothing else, the current effort could revitalize the cabinet-level working group announced by the Bush administration four years ago to address the problems – an effort that seems to have faded away.

Skeptical environmentalists

For their part, environmentalists are wary. "I'm highly skeptical," says Jim McCarthy, an environmental consultant working with river conservation groups and coast fishermen. "Getting more water to fish is the keystone to getting fisheries restoration in the Klamath." What that will take, Mr. McCarthy and many ecologists say, is allowing more water to flow downstream unimpeded by irrigation diversions, as well as taking out or reengineering four hydropower dams on the river – another highly controversial issue.

Meanwhile, Pacific Coast fishermen and Klamath Basin farmers have been visiting each other, looking for ways to jointly tackle the problems they face that are connected by a river that flows from the Cascade Mountain Range to the sea. Farmers have set up a relief fund for commercial fishermen faced with high costs and low income this summer. At one recent meeting, someone passed a hat around, and $900 was collected – not a lot of money, but the effort was earnest.

In the West, Mark Twain once quipped, "whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over." That may be less true these days in the Klamath Basin.

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