[env-trinity] Redding.com- Tensions Mount in idyllic Siskiyou County in fight over dams

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Wed Nov 9 10:30:01 PST 2011

Tensions mount in idyllic Siskiyou County in fight over dams, salmon
By Ryan Sabalow

Saturday, November 5, 2011

YREKA — Just a few quiet miles off Interstate 5 in northern Siskiyou County it's hard to imagine deep ideological divisions and political demagoguery threaten to turn a dispute over fish habitat, dam removal and farmers' water rights into a battleground.

On the east side of the freeway north of Weed you'll find the Shasta River meandering through fields surrounded by hundreds of rolling hills. They're brown this time of year, perhaps covered with a dusting of frost or fresh snow. Cows feed among the juniper and ancient lava rock.

To the west in the hidden Scott Valley, the brilliantly green and snow-capped Marble Mountains hug hay fields fed by the Scott River. Elk and black-tailed deer are almost as common a sight as ranchers' cattle.

To the north, the two streams pour into the Klamath, a meandering green waterway that passes through canyons and miles of evergreen forests before dumping in the white-capped waves of the Pacific.

At certain times of year, the river's mouth is packed gunwale to gunwale with boats carrying Indian tribe members checking their gill nets and rod-and-reel-toting anglers hoping a silver-sided, pink-fleshed salmon tugs on their line.

In this rural area, native fishing practices and farmers' irrigation ditches that pull water from the streams date back before cars, before planes, before polyester, before television.

Yet outside attention is turning toward this idyllic region for reasons other than its timeless beauty and traditions. Disputes over removing four dams farther east on the Klamath and irrigation practices on the Scott and Shasta tributaries have catapulted the sparsely populated area to the center of a national debate over dam removal, farmers' rights and threatened salmon runs.

"We have become a little bit of a Petri dish," said Erica Terence, conservation and executive director of Klamath Riverkeeper, an Orleans-based environmental group that advocates protecting threatened coho salmon on the Scott and Shasta rivers by tearing down the dams and limiting farmers' use of irrigation water.

What's at stake

Environmental groups like Terence's, along with biologists and fishing groups, say the dispute on the Klamath could be a sign of things to come elsewhere in the West.

They say global climate change is warming creeks and shrinking snowpack, making dams and antiquated systems that divert streams for irrigation a direct threat to entire salmon runs, hurting tribes who depend on salmon harvests and recreational and commercial fishing.

Farmers say they're already struggling to pay their bills and can't afford to change their irrigation habits. They also doubt the environmental groups' claims that their water use is draining the creeks. They contend that happens during dry years whether or not they irrigate.

Siskiyou County's politicians also condemn the dam-removal plans, saying federal regulators have reached a foregone conclusion they need to be destroyed, while downplaying flooding risks and the loss of local power generation as well as other threats to agriculture, recreation, wildlife and the surrounding economies.

Last year more than 40 groups, including some farmers above the dams, environmentalists, American Indian tribes and the dams' owners signed an agreement to explore tearing them down. But the county's population in the last election overwhelmingly endorsed a toothless referendum condemning that plan.

Other than the Republican politicians who represent the area, those in the federal or state governments blatantly ignored the county's voice, said Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey.

"They're attacking Siskiyou County and the people of Siskiyou County," Lopey said. "They're ganging up on us."

Lopey points to a September speech given in San Francisco by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. President Barack Obama's natural resources chief described the benefits of removing the four Klamath dams appearing to far outweigh the negatives.

While saying he was still gathering public input on the proposal, Salazar called those who continue to oppose the removal plans "naysayers" set on derailing a hard-fought deal.

Flowing downstream

In his speech, Salazar said reports show the costs of removing the dams is about $160 million cheaper than originally projected and would be a major boon to the river's health and for the coho and chinook salmon and steelhead that swim upstream.

In addition, Salazar said, dam removal would create close to 4,600 jobs over 15 years, help agriculture and bolster the surrounding economy. The risks of dam removal local officials fear would be "mitigated and controlled," he said.

If the dam-removal plans are approved, the most optimistic estimates say they won't be taken down until at least 2020.

In the weeks after Salazar's speech, Lopey helped gather conservative activists from all over Northern California and the West to protest what they see as powerful, well-funded special interest groups and government agencies attacking the struggling county of 45,000 people, nearly one in five of whom are unemployed.

At the inaugural Defend Rural America event last month in Yreka, hundreds of tea party members and local officials from several north state counties, including Shasta and Tehama, and other Western states showed up in support of Siskiyou County's cause. They watched a documentary and heard a panel of eight Oregon and Northern California sheriffs, including Lopey, voice worries that increased federal and state intrusion and environmental regulation threaten to cripple their communities.

Outside of Siskiyou County, farmers, local sheriffs, conservative activists and politicians say they believe the tactics used by environmentalists and government regulators in Siskiyou County to tear down the dams and regulate farmers' water may be applied elsewhere in the state.

"We have a couple of dams as well," Trinity County Sheriff Bruce Haney told the crowd at the Defend Rural America rally. "This is why it's so important for us to be sitting here as well, united."

Already in Shasta County, farmers are alarmed at a plan federal fisheries regulators recently announced to count the number of barriers salmon face as they swim up Cow Creek. The farmers fear that will turn, eventually, into a water grab. State and federal biologists adamantly deny such claims.

"All the things tie together," said Shasta County Supervisor Les Baugh. "Every problem, every challenge they're having with regards to water will later flow downstream to us."

'Set up for conflict'

Each side of the debate believes scientific evidence and the law — including the state and federal constitutions — support their point of view.

Terence, the environmentalist at Klamath Riverkeeper, said she carries a pocket-size Constitution everywhere she goes.

But few invoke the Constitution with as much vehemence as Scott Valley rancher and tea party activist Mark Baird.

The 59-year-old airline pilot, radio station owner and vice president of Scott Valley Protect Our Water goes to public meetings with a copy of the document tucked into a holster on his belt.

He said some of the farmers in his valley have water rights stretching back to the time before California was a state.

They have a right to their water, their property, in the same way people have a right to use the garages they bought when they purchased their homes, he said.

"How can you conduct your life one day to the next not knowing if the property you own today can be taken tomorrow?" he said.

But Clayton Creager, senior scientist overseeing the Klamath River for the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said he hopes a solution can be reached so farmers can use their water more efficiently, making sure fish have enough to survive.

He notes there are some farms on the Shasta River already making progress on such fronts. The problem, he said, is long ago water rights were awarded without thought to how much was actually available."There's more water rights than there is water," Creager said. " ... I'm not trying to belittle anybody's argument, but we're inherently set up for conflict."

Craig Tucker, Klamath campaign coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said it doesn't have to be.

He points to the diverse groups, including the Karuk, that came together to support the dam removals. He hopes something similar can happen in the Scott and Shasta valleys.

"This issue of water use, of how to share it among the different users, is increasingly an issue for the West and the world," he said. "I don't think we're a model for river restoration. I think we're a model for how diverse rural communities can work out a compromise to exist together."

But Tucker's optimism goes only so far. He said such compromises are becoming harder and harder to reach given the deep political divisions driving the debate.

"It's really frustrating. The partisanship, from the county level to the national level, it's ruining America," Tucker said. "The kind of dialogue we're getting out of people ... that's not solving it. It's making it worse."

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