The feds’ good news: ‘Peace in our time’
By Peter Jamison
For California’s commercial salmon fishery, which repeatedly finds itself pummeled by bad breaks, the past week has brought an unusual flurry of decent news. Last Friday, federal and state officials announced an “agreement in principle” with the utility PacificCorp to remove four hydropower dams from the Klamath River, which snakes across the Oregon-California border. On Tuesday, officials from NOAA Fisheries Service issued a finding that farmers must curtail the use of three common pesticides that endanger salmon.
Not bad for an industry that in recent years has faced, in quick succession, the largest fish-kill in West Coast history, the most severe failure of the commercial salmon fishery in history, and the collapse of previously booming salmon populations in the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers. But despite the promising headlines, salmon fishermen on San Francisco Bay aren’t smiling.
That’s because the new developments in federal fish policy — particularly the Klamath River deal — come across as incrementalist approaches to a crisis that may well be past the point of turning around, according to Zeke Grader, the San Francisco-based executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the West Coast’s largest trade association of commercial fishermen. Grader says that the list of dangerous pesticides is too small, and that the dam agreement allows PacifiCorp too much leeway to wriggle out of the deal. “It’s a little bit like Chamberlain waving the papers, saying, ‘Peace in our time,’” Grader told SF Weekly, referring to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous 1938 declaration that he had negotiated a truce with Adolf Hitler. “It’s a way to go before we have a deal.”
History offers few examples of man-made environmental disaster so stark as the decimation of the Klamath River. In 2002, White House officials including presidential advisor Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney intervened in Interior Department deliberations to make sure that water from the Klamath was diverted to Oregon farmers, a vital Republican constituency in a state that Bush had narrowly lost in 2000. The same year, tens of thousands of salmon died as a result of poor river conditions. Since then, the Klamath salmon have never recovered, and their woes have had a profound effect on California fishermen: While most salmon in waters off San Francisco come from the Sacramento River, a small number of Klamath salmon swim among them, bringing with them severe fishing restrictions designed to restore the river to health.
Sandy Cooney, spokesman for the California Resources Agency, called the arrangement with PacifiCorp a “significant first step” towards restoring the Klamath, while allowing that fishermen’s concerns about the finality of the agreement have merit. “They’re correct that it’s a step that allows for further negotiation, but it’s a step that’s never happened,” Cooney said. He also noted some of the federal government’s more immediate actions — for example, $120 million in aid has been funneled to California salmon fishermen this year, up from $33 million last year.
The cash aside, fishermen don’t see their luck turning soon. The 2009 season may be cancelled entirely, as was the season in 2008. Meanwhile, another sore spot in the Klamath dam-removal plan is its tentative 12-year timeline. While carrying out another executive blunder halfway around the world, Grader notes, the present administration showed itself more than apt at the sort of project envisioned for the Klamath. “To put it in perspective, it took the U.S. an afternoon to take out the dams on the Tigris and the Euphrates,” Grader said. “To say it’s going to take a decade is just appalling.”