ave Bitts lives hundreds of miles away from Klamath Falls, but the project is as much a part of his life as the farmers'. He's an Arizona Diamondbacks fan and a straight talker. For about half of his fifty-three years he has been a California coast fisherman based near Eureka, and, he jokes, he's nearly made a living at it.
The Klamath was once the third-most-productive salmon river on the West Coast, producing up to 1.1 million fish per year. But today, some salmon runs in the Klamath are down to 20 percent or less of their historic population. In 1997 coho spawning in the Klamath were declared a threatened species, and the National Marine Fisheries Service has put even Klamath hatchery coho swimming in the ocean off-limits to commercial fishing, in order to protect the wild Klamath runs from accidental catch.
Bitts is now forced to take his 45-foot troller far from home to avoid catching Klamath fish illegally -- sometimes 300 miles south to Monterey Bay. Fish processing plants in Eureka have shut down, and unemployment has risen. Unlike the farmers, who have so far received $20 million in federal aid to help them weather the water turnoff, the fishers have been on their own.
It isn't only the Klamath Project and other irrigation withdrawals that have hurt the Klamath River salmon. Downriver, Iron Gate Dam blocks fish passage. Spawning habitat has been depleted. Agricultural runoff fills the rivers. "A lot of nutrients are being added to the Klamath," Bitts said. "The water coming back to the river after irrigation is pretty ratty stuff."
In the 1990s, thanks to the levers of tribal treaty rights and the Endangered Species Act, the regional tribes and the fishers began to fight back. In 1996 an Interior Department solicitor published a legal opinion stating that water for Native American tribal trust obligations and endangered species should take precedence over the farmers. Then, in 2000, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that charged the federal government with operating the project to the detriment of the coho, and won. The National Marine Fisheries Service issued a biological opinion demanding sufficient flows in the Klamath River to ensure the coho's survival. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started enforcing minimal levels to keep Upper Klamath Lake from being drained.
For the farmers, the timing couldn't have been worse. The new requirements kicked in the same year the drought hit. Bitts knows the past year has been hard on the farmers. "It's pretty clear the government has made promises to those farmers that it can't keep," he said. "There are a lot of rough equivalencies between the farming business in the upper basin and the fishing business on the coast. They both are ways of life whose practitioners consider themselves to be rugged individuals in a threatened subculture."
At the same time, Bitts believes the farmers have been in denial for years. "They say they are entitled to that much water," he said. "So the need to provide water for fish is a new and disturbing and incomprehensible thing."