Klamath farmers, fish at crossroads
published 2 local letters to the editor regarding
Klamath Project power rates by William Kennedy,
Klamath Falls, and Steven Plass, Tulelake,
posted to KBC 3/13,05.
Honor the contract on the Klamath,
The Oregonian by Scott Seus, Klamath Basin farmer, rerun 2/27/05
A utility's plan to end a longtime power
subsidy could mean less water going to
By David Whitney -- Bee Washington Bureau
Published 2:15 am PST Sunday, February 27, 2005
WASHINGTON - Through sickness and health,
drought and abundance, Klamath basin farmers have
been wedded to dirt-cheap power for nearly nine
Electric pumps lift water from an underground
aquifer, help pull it from lakes and canals, spray
it over some 450,000 acres of crops and then push
the agricultural overflow back uphill from Tule
Lake to the Upper Klamath National Wildlife
Refuge, to start the process again.
But there's trouble afoot, and this once-happy
union of power and water, in the largest
battleground over the federal Endangered Species
Act in the country, is on the brink of
Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp, whose vast
six-state service area includes the Klamath basin,
overlapping southern Oregon and Northern
California, wants to end subsidized power rates
next year for 1,300 irrigators that have been
virtually unchanged since the power started
flowing in 1917.
The impact will be costly to all, and
devastating to many.
Rates will go from 0.6 cents to more than 6
cents per kilowatt-hour - a tenfold increase.
The Tulelake Irrigation District in Northern
California, for example, has been told that its
annual power bill is expected to rise from about
$70,000 in 2003 to $1.05 million in 2006, said Ed
Danosky, general manager.
Farmers are screaming about economic disaster
and broken promises.
"People are going to suffer," said Steve
Kandra, president of the Klamath Water Users
Association, who said he believes many will resort
to more wasteful irrigation flooding that uses a
lot less juice.
But others see market-based power rates for
irrigators as the much-needed catalyst for
resolving entrenched conflicts between agriculture
and fish. The irony is that by leaving it to
market forces rather than government, they say,
fish and farmers could end up healthier.
Especially in the hillier portions of the basin
in Oregon, where sprinkler irrigation is dominant
and flood irrigation impractical, high power rates
can be an incentive to forgo farming on marginal
"If even 40,000 acres of these most marginal
lands went out of production, using a rule of
thumb of 2.5 acre-feet of water per acre, that's
100,000 acre-feet of water returned to the
system," said Jim McCarthy of the Oregon Natural
Oregon State University economist William
Jaeger said salmon could be the beneficiary of
weeding out the marginal operators. But the vast
majority of farming operations should do just fine
despite the high power rates, he said, and the
payoff for them would be a reduced threat of
losing water deliveries during dry years when fish
need them more.
"I see a potential for a compromise on a middle
ground solution to problems in the upper basin,"
said Jaeger, who has extensively studied the
Klamath basin and its intractable conflict over
The dispute is over who should have priority to
receive water when it's in short supply - farmers,
who were lured to the basin nearly a century ago
by government water policy, or endangered
suckerfish and salmon whose declining health has
devastated a cultural and economic way of life
along the Klamath River all the way to the Pacific
Ocean and beyond.
Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's
Associations, said the dispute is a classic
supply-and-demand situation and that applying
market-based rates for the power that runs the
irrigation network could begin to even the scales.
"Is this a magic bullet?" he asked. "No, but it
will sure help."
On the surface, these are not issues that
concern PacifiCorp. Its decision to end the
subsidies is a simple business issue, the company
said, not some grand altruistic search for a
solution to the Klamath basin's water wars.
"Let's not pretend this is going to be easy on
people," said Jon Coney, a PacifiCorp spokesman.
"We are doing everything in our power to help
these customer groups through this."
But the timing of the company's decision to end
the subsidies adds to the complexity, and the
The company's 50-year license to operate its
Klamath hydroelectric projects expires next year,
and in relicensing proceedings before the Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission the company is under
pressure to do more to protect downstream fish,
including taking down dams.
While cheap power has been associated with the
relicensing, PacifiCorp regards them as separate
processes, adding that state law now prohibits the
renewal of the special irrigator rates.
"We are a cost-of-service utility," he said,
and the company can't offer one subset of
customers a special deal that its 1.6 million
other customers absorb.
"We will come out of this financially neutral,"
But Kandra, of the Klamath Water Users
Association, charged that PacifiCorp is reneging
on a commitment it made for the right to generate
power in the basin.
"It shouldn't be acceptable to anyone in the
United States that a utility gets the run of a
river and does not compensate the people who
provide them that run," he said.
Kandra also disputed claims that fish were
going to benefit from the pain of irrigators, all
of whom are family farmers rather than big
industrial operations. It's the irrigators who pay
to move water throughout the basin, he said, and
its eventual return to the Upper Klamath National
Wildlife Refuge helps fish and waterfowl.
"Salmon and the wildlife refuges are going to
suffer, too," he said. "If you're trying to strike
at the heart by bankrupting a bunch of farmers,
you will be disappointed in the results. This will
make things worse, not better. It's a giant step
Jaeger, however, said the plan could hold more
An analysis he did for Oregon State
University's extension service concluded that
farmers who irrigate their lands by sprinkler
could expect annual costs to rise by $40 an acre,
perhaps encouraging more efficient low-pressure
But for marginal operations, he said in the
report, loss of profitability would create new
incentives for selling water rights, thus creating
an important new tool to relieving the demand side
of the equation.
And that, he said, could mean "lower-cost
solutions to the region's water conflicts, thereby
reducing the potential harm to the region's
overall agricultural economy."
The Klamath Water Users Association and others
are fighting the proposed rate increases before
the Oregon Public Utility Commission in a rate
case that has drawn environmentalists and
fishermen to the utility's side. Soon a new rate
case will begin in California.
There's a chance that in the settlement talks
over relicensing PacifiCorp's hydroelectric
operations the rate increases would be modified.
But Danosky, whose Northern California
irrigation district could be hit the hardest, said
he is convinced the good times are ending for
"This is a business deal," he said of
PacifiCorp. "It's a contract. It has been 50
years. And it's been a heck of a deal."
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