WASHINGTON — In a setback to efforts to end fighting over Klamath River water along the California-Oregon border, the area's leading environmental group announced Monday that it cannot support a proposed $1 billion deal because it doesn’t provide enough help for salmon.
The Northcoast Environmental Center said that the agreement, still in flux, guarantees water for up-river farmers in Oregon but gives no such assurances for endangered salmon trying to make their way up the 260-mile river to spawn. The deal had been touted as benefiting both fish and farming when announced in January because it would compliment separate negotiations for a deal in which Portland-based PacifiCorp would remove a series of dams impeding fish passage.
“This agreement would lock us in to supporting water allocations for agriculture that could result in stream flows so low as to cause extinction,” said Greg King, the center’s executive director. He said his group wants to reopen the water allocation talks, one of the stickiest parts of the deal.
The Arcata, Calif.-based NEC’s opposition, based on scientific studies it commissioned, will complicate, if not kill, the chances of a deal getting to Congress in time for enactment this year.
“It’s disappointing,” said Craig Tucker of California’s Karuk Tribe, a leading advocate of the agreement. “It’s a big deal for congressmen like Mike Thompson.”
Thompson, a Democrat, represents most of the river in Northern California. Tucker said it would be difficult for him to back a deal opposed by his district’s leading environmental organization.
Thompson could not be reached for comment.
The NEC announcement will put pressure on the 26 groups involved in the talks to amend key principles that have taken more than two years to draft. Talks resume Wednesday.
Glen Spain, who represents commercial fishermen in the talks, said his group agrees that fish-friendly changes will have to be made.
“Clearly there are uncertainties about what the fish in the Lower Klamath River get out of this in the long term,” he said.
On the other side of the bargaining table, interest is waning in re-examining the down-river concerns.
Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, which relies on the federal irrigation water, said his bigger concern now is trying to shore up support among irrigators.
“I can’t spend more time on that,” Addington said of the NEC’s concerns. “I’ve got to spend time in my own backyard at this point.”
Time may be the bigger factor. Advocates of the deal are trying to get it wrapped up in the next month or so in order to get it through Congress and signed by President Bush before he leaves office next January.
King said it would be work for balance, not speed.
“We want those dams down,” he said. “But we also want to make sure that there is enough water for fish. We don’t want to sacrifice fish for an expedient agreement.”