By Ani Kame'enui of Portland, Oregon. Ani is the Klamath Campaign Coordinator for Oregon Wild.
In 2002, Senator Gordon Smith faced a challenge from Democratic rival Bill Bradbury. During the campaign, Smith worked hard to shore up his base; he made appeals to the highest office in the land to help him solve some sticky situations for constituents whose votes he relied on. In the most infamous example, Smith worked with Vice President Dick Cheney to redirect Klamath River water to agricultural interests in southern Oregon.
Of course, back in the summer of 2002, this was no insignificant matter. After a century of heavy water diversions for high desert irrigation, the federal government was saving some of the river water for salmon. When Smith convinced Dick Cheney to lean on the management agencies during the hot and dry summer of 2002—and the water began to flow out of the river—70,000 salmon wound up dead.
The consequences for the salmon and the many communities that rely on healthy basin salmon fisheries were devastating.
Of course, Smith saw the water diversions not as a tragedy, but as an opportunity to tout his good work and success with political allies. He even ran ads with locals claiming Gordon Smith had “carried their water.” (The scenes of dead and decaying salmon didn’t make it into the ads).
In the run up to the 2008 campaign, where current Senator Jeff Merkley would unseat him, Smith said he had no regrets about his actions in the Klamath. Apparently, that sort of talk didn’t resonate with voters who recognized there was no excuse for the political pandering and subsequent fish kill in 2002.
Today, as the Klamath continues to face political and natural resource uncertainty, we wonder what Senator Merkley’s role in the basin will be. Certainly, he has already shown himself to be a better environmental advocate than his predecessor. His first votes in the Senate helped to secure Wilderness protections for 200,000 acres across Oregon. (Smith supported this Wilderness package as well.) He’s signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill that would codify the roadless rule to protect these precious public lands from the whims of changing administrations. He’s an outspoken advocate for implementing global warming solutions that actually put us on the path to a healthy planet.
However, Senator Merkley has yet to reveal if he sides with the salmon (and other wildlife) of the Klamath Basin, though he may soon have an opportunity.
The federal government and others are working to wrap up negotiations to remove four Klamath River dams. Dam removal would be great for the health of the river and would free up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat blocked since the 1950s. Unfortunately, the question still remains: if we get a final deal, will dam removal alone be enough?
The current terms of the proposed settlement lock in a corollary agreement (the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement or KBRA) and a status quo water allotment for irrigators. This guarantees that agriculture still gets to take the first drink and salmon get to deal with whatever’s left over. This is the same mindset that led to the infamous fish kill, and one that could lead to problems down the road—with or without dams.
Endangered fish aren’t the only ones set to suffer in the current deal. Another trade-off to appease the folks that praised Gordon Smith for carrying water is the continued mismanagement of the Klamath’s National Wildlife Refuges. Currently, 22,000 acres of publicly owned wetlands on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges are plowed under every year to grow potatoes and onions. Lower Klamath was protected 100 years ago by Teddy Roosevelt as the nation’s first waterfowl refuge. Today, these refuges are the only refuges in the country where commercial agriculture takes such extreme priority over the express wildlife purpose of the land.
So, can Senator Merkley help us change course in the Klamath?
As he continues to establish his role as a U.S. Senator, we hope his strong commitment to Oregon’s wild places will extend to the Klamath. Senator Merkley has been outspoken in his desire to restore science to its rightful place in environmental decision-making and nowhere is this more needed than in the Klamath Basin. The current restoration guidelines in the dam removal agreement and the KBRA continue to sidestep the river’s best available science and undercut the needs of fish, wildlife, and communities that ultimately elected Senator Merkley. In a basin riddled with long-term resource challenges, our newest senator has a chance to really carry water, and balance the needs of everyone, including endangered coho salmon and bald eagles.