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Groups Ask Salazar to Referee Klamath Water Fight

March 29, 2012

PORTLAND, Ore. - At the Oregon-California border, the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges risk drying up again this summer. Conservation groups have written a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, asking him to step in before that happens. More than two dozen groups are asking Salazar for guarantees of sufficient water for the refuges.

The long-running struggle to share scarce water in the Klamath Basin pits agriculture against defenders of endangered fish and migratory birds in this major stop on the Pacific Flyway. Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, says the southern Oregon wetlands have not received a full water supply since 2006, and the situation is critical.

"We're talking about huge numbers of breeding birds that won't be able to breed. We're talking about huge numbers of migratory birds that see the Klamath as an absolutely critical stopover point on their migratory pathways, that won't find that there. And you know, these are the places that we set aside for wildlife."

In 2010, the Interior Department allowed Tule Lake to go dry, transplanting some endangered fish to another lake. The groups contend that was done without a chance for the public to weigh in. They're asking Salazar to prevent similar action this year, and to mandate a specific minimum amount of water to keep the marshlands viable.

Even with recent rainfall, refuge managers say heading into spring, the area is the driest it has been in 70 years. Sallinger says the groups are questioning the policy of leasing so much public land on the refuges to farmers.

"Huge amounts of water are diverted and as a result, the refuges don't get enough water. When the water is returned to the refuges and to the river, it's often polluted - contaminated with pesticides and herbicides and other pollutants - from the agricultural operations."

Sallinger says 80 percent of the wetlands have been drained or converted to farmland, and the birds using the remaining marshes are down from 7 million in the 1950s to about 1 million today.

The letter to Salazar can be viewed at http://bit.ly/GTHkXN.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR