Klamath: Water plan forged

By ALI BAY, Capital Press
March 18, 2002

WASHINGTON, D.C. - After its first meeting March 8, the Klamath River Basin Federal Working Group has detailed its plan to help farmers and ranchers whose irrigation water was shut off last year.

Speaking to the media shortly after the Cabinet-level group convened the first time since President George W. Bush assigned the task force at the beginning of this month, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman said the meeting was productive.

“Farmers and ranchers have suffered economic hardship due to the scarcity of water,” Veneman said. “President Bush has a strong commitment to resolve issues in the region. The presence of senior-level people there today shows we’re working toward that goal.”

The working group, with Interior Secretary Gale Norton as chairman, committed $1.6 million of U.S. Department of Agriculture funds to help accelerate irrigation water management, conserve resources and protect wildlife. They also extended the sign-up period for the Emergency Conservation Program through September so farmers and ranchers can get financial help to obtain adequate water for livestock.

Members of the Cabinet-level group will also begin 22 special projects in the Wimena-Fremont National Forest to provide stream improvements and the decommissioning of nearly 45 miles of road to deal with water quality and other environmental concerns.

“We’re working very closely with other agencies to do everything we can to help the area in the coming year,” Veneman said.

While the group developed a few short-term solutions at its first meeting, Veneman said the task force’s goal is to deal with bigger, long-term issues.

“Obviously there’s a need to protect fish, tribes and farmers,” she said. “We need a win-win-win solution for all the parties.”

Agricultural leaders said they’re optimistic about the opportunities or solutions the new working groups might provide.

“I’m very hopeful this will provide some solutions,” said Deb Crisp, executive director of the Tulelake Growers Association. “I think it will give the agricultural community an opportunity to participate at a high level and have input where we haven’t.”

Crisp said one of the reasons farmers and ranchers lost their irrigation water last year was because their representatives weren’t allowed to participate in the process with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“I think input from the community is extremely important,” Veneman said. “The working group talked about soliciting input from farmers in the region. Certainly this administration believes it’s extremely important to get community involvement.”

Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said he’s pleased to see the Bush administration giving the issue a high priority. He hopes the working group will deal with the issue of avoiding a similar crisis in the future.

“The tendency has been to look at what fish need and not worry about any of the people who happen to be in the way,” he said. “There are ways to restore fisheries and maintain agriculture at the same time. That’s what we should try to do.”

Members of the working group include Veneman, Norton, Commerce Secretary Don Evans and James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. President Bush created the task force March 1.

“We’re directed to do everything we can to provide water quantity and quality to the growers in the Klamath Basin,” Veneman said.

But even as federal leaders say help, and maybe even solutions, are on the way to Klamath, the community understands healing will take a long time.

“This is something people are never going to forget,” Crisp said. “It’s going to take some time for the agencies to rebuild our trust.”


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