Federal regulators Tuesday ordered major reductions in the amount of pollution that pours into the Klamath River, an action that American Indians and environmentalists touted as a milestone in the fight to restore once-thriving salmon runs to Northern California.
The U.S. EPA approved a water-quality-improvement plan that would force farmers, foresters and utilities to help clean up the main stem of the Klamath, which for years has suffered from high levels of silt, chemicals and toxic algae.
"The salmon are an indicator species for the biologically important Klamath watershed, but they are really on a precarious path downward in terms of their existence," said Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for the EPA. "We want to make sure that not only are we providing fresh clean ecosystems for the fish, but also for the people."
The plan, which received final approval on Dec. 28, calls for a 57 percent reduction in phosphorus and a 32 percent cut in nitrogen, both of which are associated with polluted runoff from agriculture, diversions and the pooling of water in reservoirs. Among other things, the standards also require a 16 percent cut in what is known as carbonaceous biochemical oxygen, which is essentially a measure of wastewater in the river.
Agricultural groups, which face limits on irrigation, and PacifiCorp, which operates four hydroelectric dams on the river, were not happy with the plan, which they insisted used faulty data.
"It's inappropriate and unachievable," said Art Sasse, the spokesman for PacifiCorp, which is considering a lawsuit. "We are going to assess our options to protect our customers."
Large salmon run
The mighty Klamath, which is now a federally protected "wild and scenic" river, flows 255 miles from Oregon though California to the Pacific Ocean, draining 12,600 square miles of mountains, forests and marshlands that some have called the Everglades of the West.
It was historically the third-largest source of salmon in the lower 48 states, behind the Columbia and Sacramento rivers. Chinook once swam all the way from the ocean to Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon, providing crucial sustenance to Indians, including the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley tribes in California and the Modoc and Klamath tribes in Oregon.
Water quality began to decline when four midsize dams were built along the Klamath's main stem starting in 1909, blocking miles of salmon-spawning habitat. The dams - Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2 and J.C. Boyle - warmed the river water, allowing destructive parasites and blooms of toxic blue-green algae to contaminate the water. Water diversions for cities and agriculture exacerbated the problem, according to fishery biologists.
Since 2004, levels of cyanobacteria and microcystin toxins at several locations on the lower Klamath have exceeded World Health Organization standards. The entire Klamath River is now listed by the federal government as "impaired."
The EPA was forced to regulate water quality in the Klamath after a lawsuit was filed in 1997 by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and 12 other environmental organizations demanding that pollution limits be set.
The situation got national attention after a massive die-off of 33,000 salmon in 2002. Still, farmers and other water users were furious about efforts to limit their water rights. A tentative agreement to remove the four dams beginning in 2020 was eventually reached after salmon counts continued to drop.
The main stem of the Klamath in California is the last of 18 bodies of water in the North Coast on which the EPA set pollution limits. Similar restrictions are expected to be approved within a month along the highly polluted Oregon portion of the river.