Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle 

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 years.

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 wildlife.

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 supplies.

“(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.