Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Fighting for Our Right to Irrigate Our Farms and Caretake Our Natural Resources

Letter from the Oregon Natural Resource Council (misspellings and all)
Main Office: 5825 N. Greeley, Portland, OR 97217
February 24, 2003

Dear Klamath Irrigation Project Landowner,

I am writing you to share some conservation community perspectives on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Irrigation Project and the Klamath River Basin. I am communicating directly in hope that – at a minimum – you can better understand the conservation community’s actions that seek reform of project operations to meet a broader array of economic, social and environmental needs. I also want to share with you a specific proposal that you may be able to support.

Why the Klamath River Basin is So Important to Conservation

Despite a century of mismanagement, the Klamath Basin still represents the largest interior freshwater wetland west of the Mississippi River, and is often called the "Everglades of the West." The entire Klamath River Basin remains one of the richest biological areas in North America.

  • Wetlands Importance and Loss. 113 out of 410 fish and wildlife species identified in the Klamath Basin are of concern or at risk, mainly due to wetland habitat loss. Wetlands have been reduced from 350,000 acres in 1905 to less then 75,000 acres – with much of that in a degraded condition.
  • Upper Klamath Lake. In 1884, Dr. E. D. Cope wrote that Upper Klamath Lake sustained "a great population of fishes" and "was more prolific in animal life" then any body of water known to him. Several formerly abundant mullet species in Upper Klamath Lake historically supported a tribal subsistence harvest of more then 50 tons/year, an active and economically valuable recreational fishery and at least one cannery. Today, two fish species in the lake are officially listed as endangered and others qualify for protection and its water quality is often toxic to fish.
  • Waterfowl. About 80% of the all the waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway use the Upper Klamath River Basin. In the fall of 1955 – several decades ago, but several decades after the Klamath Irrigation Project was commenced – seven million birds at one time could be found on the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges, certainly the greatest concentration of waterfowl in North American and probably the world. It has been estimated there were even more birds earlier in that century. Thomas C. Horn, the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge manager in 1957 wrote: "at the time the area was made a refuge, in 1908, literally clouds of birds of many species darkened the sky; the thunder of their wings was like the roar of distant surf, and their voices drowned out all other sounds." Today, at the peak of migration, despite habitat losses throughout the flyway, waterfowl estimates on the two national wildlife refuges are approximately one million birds at one time.
  • Pacific Salmon. Historically, chinook, coho and steelhead inhabited Upper Klamath Marshes and rivers nearly all the way to the headwaters. The Lower Klamath Basin included spring/summer, fall and winter run steelhead, spring and summer/fall run chinook and coho, chum and pink salmon. Fish runs ranged from 600,000 to 1.1 million adults returning to every tributary and occupying every ecological niche in what was once the third largest salmon producing river system on the West Coast. Additional important fisheries resources included white and green sturgeon, pacific lamprey, coastal cutthroat trout and eulachon (candlefish).

The Klamath’s once great salmon runs once supported a large salmon fishing fleet that

stretched for nearly 200 miles along the Pacific coast from Florence to Fort Bragg. Today,

that economy is decimated, primarily by habitat destruction due to logging, grazing,

mining, farming and dams.

Farming Increasingly Problematic in Klamath River Basin

As you well know, while the soil is relatively productive, the frosts stay late and come early, severely limiting the crops that can be grown in the Klamath Irrigation Project. The economics of farming is also changing as agriculture and capital globalizes. Chinese onions, Mexican sugar and Canadian potatoes are bigger threats to basin farming than environmental protections.

Future Actions of Environmental Community

The conservation community’s commitment to the protection and restoration of the Klamath River Basin is increasing. Formed in 1999, A Coalition for the Klamath Basin originally included Institute for Fisheries Resources, Klamath Basin Audubon Society, Klamath Forest Alliance, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Pacific Coast Federations of Fishermens’ Associations, Sierra Club (Oregon Chapter), the Wilderness Society and WaterWatch. Later, the Northcoast Environmental Council joined. Recently, American Rivers, Defenders of wildlife, Headwaters and World Wildlife Fund have come on board. Here are some of our activities:

  • Water Rights Adjudication. Eventually, water rights will be adjudicated for the project. The questions of how much water (whether the right is held by the individual landowner, irrigation districts or the Bureau of Reclamation) will eventually be decided. What has already been decided is that tribal rights and the needs of endangered species come before irrigation.
  • Endangered Species Act Litigation. More litigation is inevitable over several listed species including the bald eagle, c’wam and qapdo (fish species in Upper Klamath Lake), bull trout and coho salmon (in the Lower Klamath River). The Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and the Bureau of Reclamation are failing to fulfill their legal obligations.
  • Endangered Species Act Listings. Other species – often found only in the Klamath Basin – are in serious decline, including, but not limited to: green sturgeon, eulachon (or candlefish), Klamath lamprey, Pit-Klamath brook lamprey, Pacific lamprey, largescale sucker and slender sculpin. Steps are underway to obtain Endangered Species Act protection for these fish.
  • Leaseland Farming on National Wildlife Refuges. Intensive row-crop agriculture, and the pesticide use that accompanies such farming, is incompatible with good wildlife management. Conservationists have a three-pronged strategy to end lease farming on refuge lands.

* Litigate to End the Leases. We believe that National Wildlife Refuges should be for wildlife. More importantly, that’s what the law says.

* Persuade Congress to Phase-Out. In 2002, the US House of Representatives voted 223 to 201 to defeat an amendment that would phase-out row crop agriculture within the basin’s National Wildlife Refuges. While we lost, it was a darn fine showing the first time out. We only need to switch 12 votes to win in the House of Representatives and then it is on to the Senate. We anticipate congressional action again in 2003.

* Lease Some Lands for Conservation Purposes. Last spring, conservationists bid on a parcel on the Lower National Wildlife Refuge. We didn’t win, but we’ll likely be back. If we are successful, we will display how restored wetlands are refuges for wildlife

Knowledgeable landowners believe that lease rates for private farmlands within the Klamath Irrigation project would double to triple if the federal government wasn’t undercutting private landowners by leasing public lands for farming. Even if you are not particularly concerned about wildlife on a national wildlife refuge, you, as a project landowner, may be concerned about the federal government flooding the lease market for farmland. As you may know, private farmland in the Klamath Irrigation Project wasn’t leased for farming this year, due to lack of demand. What private land was leased did not command a good or fair price.

  • Clean Water Act Litigation. ONRC is continuing with its litigation against the Bureau of Reclamation over the return of polluted irrigation water to the Klamath River. We are also suing to regulate the use of acrolein in irrigation canals, a chemical toxic to fish and other wildlife. Non-point (so-called "total maximum daily loads") pollution reductions are in the works. In many ways, Klamath Irrigation Project operations likely violate the Clean Water Act. Our lawyers are exploring options to ensure that agriculture complies with clean water standards as municipalities and industries must. We are also looking into whether pesticide spraying on refuge lands is a violation of one or more federal laws.
  • Bonanza Drinking Water. Each year, excessive groundwater pumping dries up Big Springs at Bonanza, allowing polluted water backed by the Harpold Dam to flow into the local water table and contaminate the drinking water of numerous residents. The conservation community is examining options to litigate under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, aka "Superfund") and/or Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
  • Electric Power Subsidies. Klamath Irrigation Project farmers haven’t had a rate increase since 1917. In fact, rates went down in 1956. Because power has been so cheap (project pumpers pay about 0.5cent/kilowatt-hour, while farmers elsewhere in California and Oregon pay an average of 5.5 cent), the project was designed and is operated more relying on electricity than gravity. On January 31, 2006, the preferential subsidy will end. A lot has changed since 1956 when the contract was last renewed, including, but not limited to:

* The benefits to PacificCorp of using Upper Klamath Lake as a reservoir allow it to operate its dams for "peak" demand power have changed due to requirements to maintain minimum (albeit ecologically inadequate) river flows and lake levels. Therefore, the Bureau of Reclamation, which Oregon granted the waters of Upper Klamath Lake on behalf of project farmers, has little-if any-bargaining power this time around.

* The California and Oregon Public Utilities Commissions now strongly disfavor such narrow special interest subsidies. Consumer protection organizations will also oppose the continuation of this subsidy.

* Power rate hikes and spikes, particularly in California, mean that consumers will have little sympathy for Klamath Basin farmers, especially when other farmers are paying eleven times more for their electricity, and still well below average residential and commercial rates.

* It is probably not prudent to expect a Bush Administration (even if re-elected in 2004) to support a continuation of power subsidies. The free-market, fiscal-conservative-talking administration is philosophically opposed to subsidies. President Bush signed the 2002 farm bill, not because he thought it was good policy, but because the subsidies were expected to be politically critical to the election of Republicans. Such a political dynamic may not again be in place until the next farm bill in the fall of 2008, over two years after January 31, 2006.

  • Klamath Hydroelectric Project relicensing. In addition to PacificCorp deriving fewer benefits for using the waters of Upper Klamath Lake for hydroelectric power production, other factors may contribute to make continued operation of the hydroelectric project infeasible. The six dams will need certification under the Clean Water Act and to provide for fish passage. To operate the dams so they don’t pollute and to pass migrating fish will likely mean that their operation is uneconomical. Even if the dams can continue to operate, there is little, if any, benefit to PacificCorp to support continuation of the power subsidy presently received by project.
  • Out-of-Basin Water Transfers. Conservationists are challenging diversion of Klamath Basin water to the Rogue Basin. This represents approximately 30,000 acre-feet (about one-half feet of Upper Klamath Lake). Such water is not available for Klamath River Basin fish or farms.

And It’s Not Just the Conservationists

Several Native American tribes, including The Klamath Tribes in the Upper Basin and the Kurok, Yurok, Hoopa and other tribes along the lower Klamath River share many of our concerns. The Yurok Tribe has recently joined some of our ongoing litigation. Jolted by the death of over 33,000 returning salmon due to inadequate water quantity and quality, Humboldt County and some local governments near the lower river have voted to weigh in on these issues.

A Win-Win-Win-Win-Win-Win Opportunity

The Bureau of Reclamation has recently announced that irrigators in the project are going to need to get by with 20-25% less (100,000 acre-feet) water annually. Conservationists, tribes and commercial fishermen believe that more reductions are necessary. The Bush administration wants to leave it up to the "market" to determine how this reduction is allocated, with some landowners paying other landowners for their water. Such a market is problematic, especially prior to final adjudication of water rights. We don’t want to see a future where many landowners will go broke and few will get even richer.

Instead, conservation organizations are supporting a proposal that would benefit:

  • landowners who want to sell their land or interest in water;
  • farmers who want to continue farming;
  • commercial fishermen downstream who want to continue fishing;
  • Native American Tribes both up and downstream who want to put food on their table,
  • taxpayers; and
  • the environment.

By almost any reckoning, the United States has a surplus of farmlands and a shortage of wetlands. Twenty-six conservation organizations have proposed that any farmland owner within the Klamath Irrigation Project be eligible for a voluntary program to sell their land or interests in water to the federal government.

Conservationists are proposing that the federal government pay $4,000/acre for the land. This in contrast to the estimated $1,450/acre average market value today of project farmland. Land values will likely continue to decrease as markets, water supply, electricity rates and other factors continue to go against farming as it has been done in the Klamath Basin.

Conservation organizations support the nearly three times market value compensation to account for the decline in property values due to the uncertainty of water delivers and chronically low crop prices due to farm, finance and trade policies of the federal government. (We don’t propose that the government acquire any houses and or many outbuildings under this program.

Those who wish to sell their interest in water and continue dryland farming would be similarly compensated under our proposal at the rate of $2,500/acre for non-irrigation conservation easement. We propose compensation based on "interests in water" because project landowners have no adjudicated water rights.

Under our proposal, eligible landowners would decide whether or not to participate. After it is determined which lands are in the buyout program, suitable lands would be included in national wildlife refuges. Lands not suitable for refuge status would be first used as trading stock with other project landowners to consolidate both private and refuge ownership. Any remaining lands would then be used as trading stock for other beneficial conservation in basin land exchanges.

Revenues to county governments would go up under such a program, because federal payments in lieu of taxes for public lands are higher then local property taxes for private farmlands. Conservationists are also supportive of programs to maintain local government revenues and provide for economic transition assistance (such as was done for the "spotted owl" counties).

We also similarly propose that interests in lands and waters in the headwater areas be acquired for the water quality, water quantity and wildlife benefits they can provide.

There are substantial benefits to those who decline to opt into the program and chose to continue farming. As there would be less farmland, the water that is available to agriculture each year would be greater and more certain.

The proposal would:

  • Resolve conflicts between various water interests in the Klamath River Basin.
    • Reduce water conflicts between irrigation and wildlife in the Klamath Irrigation Project.
    • Increase the natural supply of water and water quality throughout the Klamath River Basin,
    • Help diversify the economy of the upper Klamath River Basin by restoring commercial, sport and Native American fisheries, promoting ecotourism and waterfowl hunting.
    • Give options to landowners squeezed by chronically low crop prices and/or wanting to retire.
    • Help conserve and restore the bald eagle, bull trout, c’wam, qapdo and coho salmon so they no longer need to be on the endangered species list and restore all these fish species to healthy levels that allow for a sustained Native American, commercial and/or sport harvest.
    • Help conserve and restore the economic base of commercial fishing off the southern Oregon and northern California coasts, in the Klamath Basin and along the Klamath River.
    • Help meet the federal government’s obligations to Native American tribes.
    • Improve the viability and sustainability of farming in the Klamath Basin.
    • Expand the National Wildlife Refuge System to adequately protect migratory bird habitat.
    • Help restore waterfowl numbers for both hunting and viewing enjoyment and the economic benefits it brings to local communities.

The estimated the cost of a voluntary buyout, watershed and habitat restoration, local government revenue maintenance and economic transition assistance programs to cost between $730-820 million dollars. While is no small amount of money, if conservation, commercial fishing interests, waterfowl, tribal and other interest join in support with enough Klamath Irrigation Project and other basin landowners, such programs can be enacted and funded by Congress. In the long run, such program will save the taxpayers money, by reducing farm subsidies and costs associated with managing endangered species, meeting tribal trust obligations and the maintenance of water quality and quantity.

Congressional Consideration Has Begun

In response to the massive salmon kill, Congressman Mike Thompson (who represents people along the lower river) and Congressman Earl Blumenauer (who represents east Portland) introduced H.R. 5698, the "Klamath River Basin Restoration and Emergency Assistance Act of 2002." Among other things, the bill would provide $100 million for the:

Purchase or lease, from a willing seller or lessor, or land, water rights associated with land, and other property interests in the Upper Klamath Basin above Iron Gate Dam and within the Scott and Shasta River Valleys and other Lower Klamath Basin areas, including acquisition of

non-irrigation conservation easements that preclude the grantor of such an easement from irrigating lands that are subject to such an easement.

Although the bill died in the last Congress, we anticipate it will be reintroduced early in the 108th Congress. While an important step, as introduced, the bill would not authorize enough money and presumes such buyouts would only be at market value. In addition, most conservationists disfavor leases because of their high short-term costs and uncertainty of long-term benefits.

Make Your Voices Heard

Unless enough Klamath Irrigation Project and other basin landowners support a voluntary buyout program, it won’t happen. In a democracy, silent support doesn’t count. You have to make your voice heard.

The four United States Senators from Oregon and California, along with the three members of House of Representatives that have Klamath Irrigation Project lands within their districts all want to do right by their constituents. However, Oregon US Senator Gordon Smith and the three House members in particular, have been listening exclusively to an irrigation elite and not to a majority of project landowners. This is understandable because the majority has not been making their voices heard. Eighty-percent of democracy is showing up. Those that have been showing up regularly are the irrigation elite that consists of:

  • Chemical, seed, fertilizer and implement dealers who make money each year the farmer plants, whether the farmer does or not.
  • Farmers who dominate leasing of subsidized farmlands on the national wildlife refuges; and
  • Farmers who own little or none of their own farmland, but lease (for a song) farmland from retirees, widows and absentee owners who have no other options.

If you believe that their interests are not the same as your interests, then you and others in similar circumstances need to make your voice heard. If you want the option to sell your farmland or interests in water at a just price, you have to directly inform your elected officials:

Senator Barbara Boxer Senator Dianne Feinstein

United States Senate United States Senate

Washington, DC 20510 Washington, DC 20510

(202)224-3553 voice (202)224-3841 voice

(415) 956-6701 fax (202) 228-3954 fax

senator@boxer.senate.gov (email through web site)

http://boxer.senate.gov http://feinstein.senate.gov

Senator Ron Wyden Senator Gordon Smith

United States Senate United States Senate

Washington, DC 20510 Washington, DC 20510

(202) 224-5244 voice (202) 224-3753 voice

(202) 228-2717 fax (202) 228-3997 fax

(email through web site) oregon@gsmith.senate.gov

http://wyden.senate.gov http://gsmith.senate.gov


Klamath County Modoc County Siskiyou County

Rep. Greg Walden Rep. John Doolittle Rep. Wally Herger

U.S. House of Representatives U.S. House of Representatives U.S. House of Representatives

Washington, DC 20515 Washington, DC 20515 Washington, DC 20515

(202) 225-6730 voice (202) 225-2511 voice (202) 225-3076 voice

(202) 225-5774 fax (202) 225-5444 fax (202) 225-1740 fax

greg.walden@mail.house.gov doolittle@mail.house.gov (email through web site)

www.house.gov/walden www.house.gov/doolittle www.house.gov/herger


You can write (slow due to anthrax concerns), call, fax or email them. If you can’t get them on the telephone personally, ask to speak to the staff person who handles Klamath Basin issues.

In Conclusion

So, why are conservation organizations urging Congress to establish such a voluntary and generous compensation option? Obviously, we want wetlands restoration for the fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, commercial fishing, tribal fishing, recreation and economic values it provides. Besides being ecological imperative, a restructuring of the Klamath Irrigation Project is economically rational, fiscally prudent, socially just and politically pragmatic.

Conservationists also want something else. For too long, farmers and conservationists have just argued in both courts of law and the court of public opinion about science, water, wildlife and values. I expect we will continue to disagree on many matters. Nonetheless, most of us should be able to agree on this: If a landowner in the Klamath River Basin wants to sell their land or interest in water to the federal government at well-above market value, then they ought to be able to do so.

Permit me to close on the issue of social justice for project landowners. While federal government has trust obligations to Native American tribes and legal obligations to endangered species, it also has social obligations to project landowners. For decades, the federal government reliably provided irrigation waters to project farmers. New laws, old laws now enforced, changed social conditions, changed government policies in other areas (globalization of agriculture and capital, NAFTA, shipping rates, etc.) and other factors have combined to irrevocably change farming conditions in the Klamath Irrigation Project.

These changed federal policies have left Klamath Irrigation Project landowners with what are essentially stranded investments. Land prices today-and probably in the future-aren’t reflective of what the land was worth or needs to be worth to get clear of the bank and have something left over for retirement, a new start, college education’s for loved ones, etc. What conservation organizations are proposing for Klamath Basin landowners is nothing less then the recapitalization of the rural American West. We hope you can also support that too.



Jay Ward

Conservation Director

P.S. In the interests of space and readability, I have not included sources and citations for the factual assertions made in this letter. Please see our website at http://www.onrc.org/programs/klamath.html for more information and documentation.





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