- The continuing battle in the
Klamath Basin between farmers who need scarce
water for their crops and activists who believe
it should be used to preserve threatened and
endangered fish has moved to a new front.
Environmentalists, salmon fishermen
and the Hoopa and Yurok tribes, who champion
more water for fish, have turned their focus on
the price of electricity that pumps the water
through miles of canals on the Klamath
Reclamation Project and into individual
Unsuccessful in winning a federal buyout of
irrigated farmlands, they are taking a page from
conservatives and pushing for the free market to
They support the utility PacifiCorp's moves
to raise electric rates for 1,300 customers on
the Klamath Reclamation Project and neighboring
lands as much as 1,000 percent to market rates
when the current 50-year contract expires next
The idea is that higher power prices
will make it too expensive to irrigate tens of
thousands of acres of marginal farmland, putting
more water in the Klamath River for struggling
''The question is whether it is in the public
interest to subsidize irrigation on the most
marginal lands,'' said Jim McCarthy of the
Oregon Natural Resources Council, an
environmental group. ''The balance can be here
if we just let it occur and stop the subsidy.
You will see more water going down the river for
fish and wildlife, which is also an economic
engine for the coast and southern Oregon.''
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's
Associations, which represents California salmon
fishermen facing a sharp reduction in their
catch due to struggling runs in the Klamath
River, has thrown its support behind PacifiCorp
on the issue.
''The Klamath Basin is so
water-starved that every effort should be made
to conserve rather than provide economic
incentives to waste,'' said Glen Spain of the
Authorized in 1905, the Klamath Reclamation
Project built a network of canals to drain Tule
Lake in California and Lower Klamath Lake in
Oregon and now irrigates 180,000 acres of
farmland that produce grain, alfalfa, onions,
potatoes, horseradish, and cattle.
On most projects around the West, the U.S.
Bureau of Reclamation built dams to provide
low-cost power for irrigators. The Westlands
Irrigation District in California, for example,
pays the equivalent of 3.6 cents per kilowatt
hour, according to the bureau.
Not so in Klamath. They ceded that
responsibility to California & Oregon Power Co.,
which built dams to regulate flows out of Upper
Klamath Lake and produce electricity. Copco has
since been taken over by PacifiCorp, which is
owned by the multinational energy giant Scottish
Annual losses near
For PacifiCorp, it's a matter of updating
rates that have not changed since 1956, and a
deal that began in 1917, said spokesman Jon
Electric rates of 0.6 cents per kilowatt hour
were 20 percent below market in 1956, said
Coney. They are now 99 percent below the 6 cents
per kilowatt hour charged for irrigation power
in Oregon; the rate in California is 8 cents per
Lumping together the 220 customers on the
project in California, 720 on the project in
Oregon, and 300 off the project in California --
including a golf course, cemetery and schools
that pay 0.75 cents per kilowatt hour --
PacifiCorp loses $8 million to $10 million a
year, Coney said.
''The rates that are charged customers
reflect what it costs to serve them, generate
power, deliver power, and maintain the
infrastructure,'' said Coney. ''What this class
of customers pays does not cover those costs. By
any measure, certainly by any regulatory
measure, an arrangement like this certainly
couldn't be continued.''
Farmers counter that their operation and
maintenance of the Klamath Project provides
water for PacifiCorp's dams. And if it costs too
much to power new efficient sprinkler systems --
some paid for with $50 million in federal
programs to reduce water demand -- they will go
back to flood irrigation, which generally uses
Farmers can thrive|
''Because there is affordable power in the
basin, we are using conservation measures --
pressurized irrigation -- that increases our
efficiency in the basin and provides more water,
not just for hydro, but also the ducks, the
deer, the raccoons and all the 430 species that
live in concert with farmers in the basin,''
said farmer Scott Seus.
Though the cost would be a big shock for
farmers, most will stay in business, moving to
cheaper methods such as flood irrigation, said
Seus, whose family raises horseradish,
peppermint, onions and alfalfa on 3,000 acres.
''We'll do what we have to,'' he said.
Oregon State University economist William K.
Jaeger concluded in a report last July that most
lands would remain productive at the higher
electric rate, though some would likely move to
cheaper irrigation methods. He estimated farmers
on the 193,000 acres using sprinklers in and out
of the project would see a $40 to $50 per acre
increase in power costs, enough to push some out
of production, particularly on sloping uplands
where flood irrigation can't be done.
''The viability of agriculture in the region
does not depend on the current low energy
prices, although these prices provide
significant financial benefits,'' he wrote.
Lynn Long grows grain on 1,000 acres of flat
bottom land in what used to be Lower Klamath
Lake. His family came West over the Oregon Trail
in 1852, and started farming on the Klamath
Project in the 1940s.
Chairman of the power committee for the
Klamath Water Users Association, Long argues the
power rate is a federal issue, tied to the
operating license for PacifiCorp's hydroelectric
dams on the Klamath River, which expires next
year, and the Klamath River Compact, which
mandates the lowest reasonable power rates for
PacifiCorp counters that states set power
As part of a general rate increase proposal
from PacifiCorp, the Oregon Public Uitility
Commission hears oral arguments next Thursday in
Salem on the Klamath rate. A final decision is
expected in June.
A PUC staff report supports PacifiCorp,
saying Oregon law prohibits discriminatory rates
favoring one customer over another who uses
power for similar purposes.
That leaves the Bush administration in a
tough position. It has rescued Klamath farmers
in the past, helping with aid for those hurt
when drought forced a shut-off of irrigation
water in 2001, initiating scientific studies,
supporting water conservation projects, and
buying extra water for fish. But President Bush
has also called for the Bonneville Power
Administration, which markets cheap federally
produced hydroelectric power in the Northwest,
to start charging market rates.
''We are hopeful something can be worked out
to avoid a sticker shock for the power users,''
said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, solicitor general of
the Department of the Interior.
There is a bill in the Oregon House to spread
the increase over seven years, which has the
support of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
If the power rates go up, Long said farmers
are looking into alternative energy sources,
including a giant array of solar panels that
could be built on a mothballed Cold War
long-range radar station.