Big win for endangered Klamath Basin fish in first round of federal funding

Endangered suckers and salmon in the Klamath Basin face a
greater shot at survival thanks to federal funds awarded this week. 

On Wednesday, Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron
Wyden announced the first 33 Klamath Basin restoration projects to receive
funds totaling more than $26 million this year. The money is part of $162
million from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for improving the ailing
health of the Klamath Basin in Oregon and California during the next five

All of the projects are dedicated to restoring fish
populations and habitats, especially endangered Lost River and shortnose sucker
fish and coho and chinook salmon. 

Fourteen of the projects will help Oregon. Nearly half of
the money this year, $10 million, will go to the Klamath Falls National Fish
Hatchery to breed 60,000 sucker fish annually. The fish are native to Upper
Klamath Lake and are vital to the Klamath Tribes, but their populations have
plummeted due to drought, over-irrigation, pollution and habitat loss. 

The Klamath Basin, encompassing the 250-mile long Klamath
River that flows from south-central Oregon through northern California and out
to the Pacific Ocean, has experienced three decades of record-setting drought
and a growing number of wildfires due to climate change. That has caused
despair and tension over water use and the future of critical fish and

Last week, the Klamath Irrigation District, a public utility
that oversees water distribution to farmers and ranchers in Klamath County,
defied a federal order to temporarily stop delivering water from the depleted
basin to its customers. It reversed course this week when federal officials
threatened to withhold millions of dollars for drought relief. 

?“The Klamath Basin has fought to survive?back-to-back
summers of the worst drought in memory,” Merkley said in a statement announcing
the first of the projects to receive infrastructure act dollars: “From
businesses and families to fish and wildlife, the impact of the drought throughout
the basin is deep.”?

Merkley said the total funding won’t just help restore fish
habitats, but also will help everyone in the basin suffering from limited water

“(It) will make the water we have go further for the
farmers, households and ecosystems in the basin,” Merkley said, adding, “We
still have a long way to go.”

The projects

Federal officials chose the 33 projects from 88 proposals
submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by tribes, local and state
agencies, nonprofits and conservation groups since March. 

They include $2.6 million for water-pumping stations to
improve wetlands in the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges
across Oregon and California, which both rely on water from Upper Klamath Lake.
The pumping stations will improve water supplies on 20,000 acres of wetlands in
both refuges and improve the efficiency of irrigation systems on 20,000 acres
of agricultural land, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. 

Oregon and California will also collaborate on a
fish-tracking system that’s getting a $1.2 million investment this year. The
focus will be on monitoring fall chinook salmon and endangered sucker fish
species, and later it will grow to include nearly all migratory fish in the
Klamath Basin. 

In Oregon, a project to reduce fertilizer pollution in the
Sprague and Williamson rivers that are causing phosphorus contamination in
Upper Klamath Lake and killing sucker fish will get $200,000.

More than $200,000 will go to improving habitat for
endangered bull trout and sucker fish on the Sprague, which is a critical
spawning ground for both fish species. More than $100,000 will help restore
riparian areas and stream conditions destroyed in the 2021 Bootleg Fire. It was
the third-largest fire in Oregon during the last century. 

The Klamath Tribes will receive more than $1 million to
breed and monitor more Lost River suckers and to restore some of their spawning
sites. They’ll also receive nearly $1 million more to grow their own chinook
salmon fishery. The Klamath Tribes have not had access to native Klamath River
salmon fisheries for more than a 100 years.

Wyden and Merkley also announced that the Bureau of
Reclamation would invest $2.2 million into a grant program to improve coho
salmon habitats in the basin.

The federal Infrastructure Act dollars being distributed
this year come on top of an additional $15 million Merkley said he secured from
U.S. Fish and Wildlife for Klamath Basin fish and habitat restoration projects
this year.