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Congressional Delegation pushes flexibility in $10M water relief

The Klamath Project Drought Response Agency and Klamath Water Users Association expressed excitement Wednesday about a technical change to the 2018 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) that will provide more flexible access for up to $10 million in drought relief to Klamath Basin irrigators, many of whom have had their operations deeply impacted by the 2020 drought.

In 2018, WRDA included language that was essential for irrigators in the Klamath Basin to effectively use $10 million in drought relief funds that the lawmakers had previously secured. The new technical correction provides clear flexibility in how the relief may be used, enabling irrigators to access the funding when there is a severe shortage of water, like there is this summer. U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Oregon Democrats, announced the passage of the change by the U.S. Senate to the relief bill on Wednesday.

Marc Staunton, president of the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency, said the added flexibility to use the already secured funds is welcomed, especially by irrigators who are idling their land in hopes of maintaining the water supply throughout the summer.

“We’ve had over 150 well applications … people that are currently pumping groundwater right now to help the Project out,” Staunton told Herald and News in a phone interview.

“We’ve had over 30,000 acres of idled applications all with basically a promise that they’ll be paid something, so being able to turn that promise into a hard number for people is pretty top of our list.”

Staunton said the relief is not new funding, but is money that the KPDRA have been counting on to perform the DRA functions.

“It secures a portion of that money right away and makes it a lot more clear of the path we need to take to secure the remaining funds,” Staunton said.

“We were banking water in Upper Klamath Lake for fish and wildlife benefit over the last month and a half and we finally just received the credit,” Staunton added.

Staunton said while the KPDRA isn’t fully funded to immediately reimburse individuals who are idling acreage this summer, the relief bill gives a much firmer foundation of having secured the funds.

“Somebody can’t collect on the contract until after the ending date,” Staunton said.

“The point of the dryland program is to reduce the demand for the full season but if people want to know what price they would receive for doing that the whole season … We’re one step closer in being able to accurately tell people what they could expect if they perform for the full contract period.”

Paul Simmons, executive director of Klamath Water Users Association, expressed appreciation to the Oregon Congressional Delegation for their leadership efforts behind the approval of the water relief funding in the U.S. Senate.

“...The bill could not have passed the Senate without Senator (Ron) Wyden’s hard work or Representative Walden’s key role in explaining to the Senate majority that this is a good thing. Our Congressional delegation’s bipartisan approach to Klamath Basin issues is refreshing and welcome,” Simmons said in a news release.

U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Wyden, both Oregon Democrats, and Congressman Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, all commented on federal efforts to ensure Klamath Project irrigators have access to water relief in the legislation.

“Through drought, wildfires, and now the coronavirus pandemic, Klamath Basin irrigators have shown they’re committed to working collaboratively with the many water stakeholders in the region, and it is imperative that the federal government step up and do all it can to assist,” Merkley said in a news release. “As the Basin grapples with a particularly difficult season, this correction will allow farmers to access much-needed resources as they continue long-term work to address water supply challenges in the region.”

“Southern Oregon knows this will be a tough water year, and this bill would provide timely and vital clarity to free up money for farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin facing these challenges in real time,” Wyden said in a news release. “Senate passage of this legislation takes a significant step forward to help the Basin, and I’m all in with pressing forward on the remaining steps to get this important bill across the finish line.”

Merkley used his seat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to include the language in the Senate’s Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) reauthorization. With WRDA stalled, Merkley pivoted and introduced the language with Wyden as a stand-alone bill, according to a news release.

Walden introduced companion legislation in the House. With the bill’s passage in the Senate, the next step is for it to be passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This technical fix is long overdue, and with the Klamath Basin facing a drought, this couldn’t come at a better time,” Walden said in a news release. “Our farmers in the basin need all the help they can get. I’m glad that Senator Merkley and Senator Wyden were able to pass this through the Senate and I look forward to working with my colleagues in House to move this to the president’s desk for signing.”

The original language authorized up to $10 million a year for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to work with the farming and ranching community to develop and implement strategies to align water demand with available supply, according to a news release. This technical correction clarifies the authority for irrigators to access the funds for strategies such as land idling and groundwater pumping in times of drought.

For more information about the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency, go online at http://www.klamathwaterbank.com



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