EPA approves water quality plan for Klamath River

GRANTS PASS — The Klamath River — which has seen its salmon runs gradually decline for a century — now has a formal plan for restoring the purity of its waters.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday it has approved California's water quality improvement plan for the Klamath, which runs 255 miles from the city of Klamath Falls in Southern Oregon to the Pacific Ocean on the north coast of California.

Oregon's plan setting total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs, for various water quality factors, is expected to be approved next month.

"There have been years and years of fighting water wars around the Klamath," Jared Blumenfeld, southwest regional administrator for the EPA, said from San Francisco. "Hopefully, for the first time I think, many parties around the table have reached agreement on what needs to be done on how we get to a place where a healthy river ecosystem is prioritized.

"This will be looked back on as an important milestone in getting both agreement and a degree of accountability about the clear path forward."

The challenge now is implementing the plan at a time when the state budget is tight, said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

The Klamath water quality plan comes on top of landmark agreements to remove four hydroelectric dams that block salmon from hundreds of miles of habitat, restore Klamath Basin ecosystems, and assure water for farmers on a federal irrigation project.

The U.S. Interior secretary is due to decide by March 2012 whether to go ahead with those plans.

"Dam removal alone will not solve the fishery problem," Catherine Kuhlman, executive officer of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said from Santa Rosa, Calif. "We have to clean up the water in order to restore the fishery. To do that, we've got to use some pretty untraditional approaches."

The plan calls for creation of one of the biggest water pollution credit exchanges in the country to pull money from sources of problems, such as hydroelectric dams owned by the utility PacifiCorp, and combine it with state and federal funds for spending on top-priority improvement projects, she said. Projects would include constructing wetlands to filter the water. The list of projects has yet to be developed.

With most of the water quality problems stemming from the upper basin, where the biggest human population and most intensive farming occur, the bulk of the improvements have to be done there, Kuhlman added.

The plan also targets cold water refuges that salmon depend on to escape warm stretches of river, and protects them from suction dredge mining and construction of levees and bridges.

The Klamath's waters have long been impaired by warm temperatures, low oxygen levels, toxic algae and erosion that are exacerbated by dams, logging, roads, and agricultural runoff.

Spain's organization and other conservation groups sued the EPA to force California to develop water quality standards for 17 salmon rivers from Mendocino, Calif., to the Oregon border, and a consent decree was signed in 1997. The Klamath plan was the last of them.

Water quality problems came to a head in 2002, when tens of thousands of adult salmon died in the lower Klamath from diseases spread by low and warm water conditions during a drought. In recent years, California has posted summer health warnings along the river due for toxic algae.

EPA scientists said fixing the problems will take years and hinge on municipal water treatment plants serving Klamath Falls, Ore., and Tulelake, Calif.; hydroelectric dams straddling the Oregon-California border; logging; farming; and cattle grazing.

Federal approval of dam removal and environmental restoration will make crucial funding available to meet the water quality plan, said EPA environmental scientist Sue Keydel.

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