Saturday, July 5, 2008

Environmental, fishing and tribal Klamath River "Defenders" turn a blind eye to agricultural water pollution

The Bush Administration has been trying since 2005 to change Clean Water Act rules so that agricultural interests can dump polluted water into public lakes and streams. But Florida environmentalists represented by Earthjustice lawyers have filed suit several times to block Bush’s Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) from implementing the proposed new rules. On June 9th, the Bush EPA tried once again and again environmentalists are going to court to block the new weak rules. Click here to read a newsclip about the lawsuit.

Members of the public who have been following Klamath River issues in recent years would likely believe that the Klamath Dams are the largest threat to Klamath River water quality. But in reality the impact of PacifiCorp’s dams pale in comparison to the degradation caused by irrigation water which is collected and discharged to the Klamath River, Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges. In fact, if the PacifiCorp reservoirs did not receive highly polluted irrigation water mostly coming from Upper Basin irrigated agriculture, it is unlikely they would be producing the toxic algae which has been so much in the news lately.

Many scientists believe agricultural water pollution is a major reason an epidemic of fish disease is killing millions of juvenile salmon and steelhead before they can reach the Pacific Ocean. Throughout the Klamath River Basin – and especially in the Lost, Shasta and Scott Sub-basins - there are numerous opportunities to use the Clean Water Act to clean up that pollution. For example, at the Southeast corner of the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, large pumps owned by the US Bureau of Reclamation and operated by the Tulelake Irrigation District pump agricultural drainage water that is highly polluted with nutrients, fertilizers and (possibly) toxic pesticides directly into the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This is a clear and open violation of the Clean Water Act which none of the self-styled “Klamath River Defenders” apparently care to challenge. Here's a photo of those pumps.

In the Scott River Valley the Siskiyou Resource Conservation District claims that it has completed cattle-exclusion fencing on 95% of privately owned land along the river (that cattle are not present on the other 5%) and 40% of the tributaries. This work was accomplished mainly with salmon restoration funds. The implication is that cattle and their waste are not getting into the waters of the Scott. But, as the photo below taken in February 2007 indicates, these fences can be opened to give cattle access to the river and tributaries. During the winter of 2007 200-300 head of cattle had access to the river at this point because a section of fencing had been opened. Siskiyou RCD does not require landowners who get the government financed fencing to keep their cattle behind the fence. So it is unclear how effective the fencing projects have been toward ending the direct deposition of cattle manure to the Scott River.

On July 4th of this year, for example, major deposition of cattle manure and trampled banks were observed and documented at the dewatered confluence of Patterson and Crystal-Johnson Creeks in the Scott River Valley. The bed of Patterson Creek is fully accessible at this location to 30-40 head of cattle and the streambed is full of cow poop. When flow returns to these streams sometime in the fall, all this manure will be washed down into the Scott and thence into Klamath River. The Klamath Basin Plan – which implements the Clean Water Act – contains a prohibition on direct deposit of animal waste into streams. Even though the North Coast Water Board has a staff person assigned to Scott Valley, however, it is obvious that the prohibition on animal waste delivery to streams is not being enforced. None of the self-styled defenders of the Klamath River and Klamath Salmon have taken action to stop the cattle manure pollution!

So why is it that those who claim the mantle of Klamath Defender are not challenging agricultural pollution of the Refuges and the River? This is a question which members of the environmental and fishing groups involved and members of Klamath River Basin Tribes should ask their leaders. But let’s also see what we can understand about the issue by examining the two examples of unchallenged agricultural pollution described above.

The 16 member Klamath Basin Coalition[1] has the health of the Klamath Refuges as one of its five core objectives. Actually the objective reads “reduce and ultimately eliminate commercially farmed leaselands on the refuges.” The Clean Water Act may be the most powerful tool at this Coalition’s disposal to achieve the objective. That’s because of the dozen or so sets of massive pumps that move polluted ag water around the Basin and because the Tule Lake Refuge – a natural lake - is used as an agricultural sump to store this polluted water.

At least 6 member groups of the Klamath Basin Coalition have signaled that they are ready to support commercial farming at current levels on the refuges for another 50 years as part of the controversial Klamath Water Deal– provided that an agreement can be reached with PacifiCorp to remove four of the company’s five Klamath River Dams.

Klamath Riverkeeper (KR) – now a stand alone non-profit corporation – is also a member of the Klamath Basin Coalition. It was founded by the Klamath Forest Alliance specifically for the purpose of Clean Water Act enforcement and with an eye to bringing the Basin’s most extensive polluters – irrigated agriculture and the timber industry – into compliance with the Clean Water Act. But KR has been urged by leaders of the Karuk and Yurok Tribes not to file complaints or lawsuits against agricultural polluters – even those in the Shasta and Scott – until the Water Deal is enshrined in federal law. Judging from the political hurdles which the subsidy-rich Deal faces, that could be a very long time.

Nevertheless, Klamath Riverkeeper appears to be complying with the request from tribal leaders. The group - which prides itself on how many clean water lawyers work for and with it [2] - has focused all its energy on PacifiCorp’s toxic algae – even ignoring toxic algae in the Shasta River’s Dwinnell Reservoir because that reservoir is owned by agricultural interests.

The four tribes involved in Klamath Water Deal and Klamath Dams negotiations each have water quality departments. Three of the tribes – the Yurok, Karuk and Klamath Tribes - support the Water Deal so it is unlikely they will be taking action to challenge agricultural water pollution any time soon. The Hoopa Tribe does not support the Deal and they have demonstrated a willingness to take on big agriculture in the form of the Westlands Water District which covets Trinity River water. But even the Hoopa show no signs of challenging agricultural pollution of the Klamath, Shasta and Scott Rivers. A fifth federal tribe - the Scott Valley based Quartz Valley Indian Reservation (QVIR) - is not involved in the Klamath Water Deal. QVIR has a small environmental department which has urged the State of California to enforce the CWA. But they have not flied suit to force enforcement.

Some environmental, fishing and tribal leaders will no doubt protest that they have and continue to participate in developing TMDLs – which are clean-up plans for the Lost, Shasta, Scott and Klamath Rivers. But TMDL clean-up plans have proven to be paper tigers because the North Coast Water Board shows no will to enforce the plans - preferring instead to “collaborate” with organizations that represent the polluters. In most river basin’s the Riverkeeper and/or organizations like Trout Unlimited would now be filing complaints and lawsuits to force the responsible agencies to enforce the clean up plans and Basin Plan prohibitions. But in the Klamath River Basin even groups like Oregon Wild and Water Watch - which oppose the Water Deal in large part because it allows continued commercial farming on Klamath National Wildlife Refuges - have not taken action in recent years to enforce the Clean Water Act even on the Refuges in spite of the fact that the pollution is blatant and easily documented!

And that explains why the Bush Administration is trying to change the rules in order to exempt agriculture from the Clean Water Act. While "Defenders" of the Klamath have failed to act, in other river basin - including nearby on the Sacramento and San Joaquin - environmental and fishing groups are using the Clean Water Act as a tool to end agricultural water pollution.

Klamath River "Defenders" justify their poor CWA performance by telling us how important dam removal is for the River. Hearkening back to the Lone Ranger, their propaganda claims that taking out four of six mainstem dams will be the silver bullet that magically restores the River and Spring Chinook salmon. But while dam removal may be the single most effective action which can be taken to restore the Klamath River, reports by independent scientists indicate that recovery of Klamath Salmon can not be accomplished unless and until we deal effectively with agricultural water pollution. Those who brought us the Klamath Water Deal will acknowledge this in private. In private they say they will take on agricultural pollution after the dams are gone. But even if a dam removal deal is finalized tomorrow, it will take at least a decade and likely two decades before the dams are gone. The question is whether Klamath Salmon can survive that long if agriculture pollution – by far the #1 pollution problem in the Klamath and likely the key factor causing the disease epidemic - continues to be ignored by those environmental, fishing and tribal entities which dominate Klamath River politics and which are funded to "save" the Klamath River and Klamath Salmon.


[1] The following organizations are members of the Klamath Basin Coalition: American Rivers, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Friends of the River, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Klamath Basin Audubon Society, Klamath Forest Alliance, National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, Northcoast Environmental Center, Oregon Wild, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Sierra Club, Klamath Riverkeeper, The Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited, Waterwatch of Oregon.

[2] Daniel Cooper, the president of Klamath Riverkeeper’s Board of Directors, is a San Francisco lawyer who specializes in Clean Water Act litigation.

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