October 2002 was a low-water mark for the Klamath River, in more ways than one.
In the preceding spring the George W. Bush administration had overridden the recommendations of biologists and allowed irrigators to draw more water from the Klamath. The summer was a hot one, and when migrating salmon arrived from the Pacific Ocean there wasn't enough water for them to get upstream to their spawning grounds.
Crowded into pools of warm water downstream, the fish were easy prey for disease. In the end, more than 30,000 of them died.
There was one positive thing about that disaster: It shocked people into realizing something had to be done about the mess in the Klamath Basin.
For decades, a variety of interests - state and federal governments, Pacific Power, farmers, fishermen, conservation groups and Indian tribes - had fought over the Klamath's limited supply of water. While they wrangled, the salmon and steelhead populations inexorably declined. The Klamath salmon fishery, once the third most productive in the West, had deteriorated by the 21st Century to the point where commercial fishermen weren't allowed to take any salmon at all in some seasons.
In February 2010, after more than two years of complex and difficult negotiations, representatives of the federal government, the governments of California and Oregon, Pacific Power and three Indian tribes signed two agreements that provide for the removal of four old hydroelectric dams on the Klamath and for restoration of fish habitat.
Last week, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and California Rep. Mike Thompson jointly introduced legislation to implement the federal government's part of the deal. The federal share of the cost of removing the dams and embarking on the environmental restoration project is estimated to be $536 million, Merkley said, which will be matched by $550 million in non-federal funds.
The Klamath Basin agreements are a remarkable example of widely divergent interests coming together to compromise for the common good. More than that, they could mean an economic windfall for the economically hard-hit Northern California / Southern Oregon coastal region.
According to a press release from Merkley, the Interior Department estimates that dam removal will increase the commercial Chinook salmon fishery's production by 80%, as well as greatly improving salmon and steelhead sport fishing. According to Interior's analysis, the net effect will be the creation of 4,600 jobs in the Klamath Basin.
With those kinds of numbers, congressional approval of the Merkley-Thompson bill ought to be a no-brainer - but since Merkley and Thompson are dealing with a no-brain Congress, it might turn out to be tough. With the Republicans on the rampage against any federal spending, it could be a real challenge to approve $536 million for something as liberal-sounding as "habitat restoration." We can almost hear the Tea Party rhetoric now: "America's broke, and those durn socialists want to spend $536 million to save fish!"
It's going to take strong public support to push the Klamath bill through, and we hope Merkley and Thompson will get it. To encourage them in the fight, we're giving them THE GLASS SLIPPER.