06/23/2015 12:52 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2016

Its Time to Finish the Largest Conservation Project in History

A century ago, the Klamath River basin was the focal point of the greatest wildlife controversy of the day. Professional hunters were killing waterfowl and wading birds for meat and plumes, shipping 120 tons of duck and goose meat each year to the markets of San Francisco.

Pioneering conservation leader William L. Finley worked to expose the dangers of this practice. Eventually, Congress outlawed market hunting and President Theodore Roosevelt established some of the nation's first national wildlife refuges in the basin.

Today, the Klamath is again embroiled in controversy. There isn't enough water to meet the needs of farmers, ranchers, Indian tribes, fishermen and wildlife refuges. To make matters worse, the region is in the grip of a prolonged drought affecting both people and wildlife.

More than a decade ago, concerned stakeholders worked together to develop a plan for the largest river restoration project in United States history. But that initiative languished due to lack of funding and political support. It's high time to renew our focus on restoring the river and developing more reliable water supplies.

Fixing the Klamath basin stands to benefit everyone in the region. Farmers and ranchers need more predictable water supplies. Fish and waterfowl need water and wetland habitat in the region's rivers and refuges. Electric ratepayers need relief from the burden of maintaining four obsolete hydroelectric dams. And the tribes need assurance that the fisheries they've depended on since time immemorial will survive.

In the past, the region's competing interests divided the community and caused politicians to opt for the safety of sitting on the fence and doing little. But today the economic argument for restoring the river is gaining strength. Audubon's Winter Wings Festival in February drew hundreds of visitors to the region. The business community -- including the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, the Family Farm Alliance and the Klamath County Chamber of Commerce -- increasingly supports river restoration.

The time for inaction has passed. Oregon and California have appropriated the necessary funds. New federal legislation proposed by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden would jump-start restoration of the river. Among other things, Wyden's bill would authorize the Bureau of Reclamation to take ownership of the four old Klamath River dams from PacifiCorp, the first step towards their removal.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, recently expressed willingness to consider taking action, offering hope that he and the other area members of Congress -- Reps. Doug LaMalfa, R-California, and Jared Huffman, D-California -- might join in a bipartisan effort to move this forward in the House of Representatives.

Restoring the Klamath River would benefit all who live in the region -- people and wildlife alike. Communities along the river are ready to roll up their sleeves and work together to get this done, and it's time for elected leaders to do their part.

Former state Sen. Jason A. Atkinson serves on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission and recently produced a film on the Klamath River entitled "A River Between Us." Michael Sutton is chairman of the Wild Salmon Center and serves on the California Fish and Game Commission.