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Farmers assess implications of Klamath water quality plan

By Christine Souza, California Farm Bureau Federation 1/12/11, Ag Alert

Farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin must now follow a new plan by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board meant to improve the water quality of the Klamath River.

The EPA announced last week it has approved California’s water quality improvement plan for restoring salmon fisheries and water quality in the Klamath River. The action culminated state and federal efforts to develop standards known as total daily maximum loads or TMDLs, representing the maximum amount of any pollutant that a water body can receive and still meet state water quality standards. The Klamath River is the last of 17 North Coast water bodies to be covered by a 1997 legal settlement under which EPA and/or the state was to develop TMDLs.

“The EPA blessed the TMDL standards that the regional water board had developed. The problem that causes for us, which is the problem that we’ve had with the regional board since day one, is we have water that naturally does not meet their standards,” said cattle rancher Sean Curtis, a director on the Modoc County Farm Bureau board. “They will ultimately be forcing irrigators and other folks to improve the water beyond its natural state. This water comes out of Upper Klamath Lake and that is a shallow, warm lake with a surrounding and underlying geology that is high in phosphorus, so naturally that water is going to reflect that.”

The Klamath River flows 255 miles southwest from Oregon through Northern California, and empties into the Pacific Ocean. Local residents say the river has suffered from naturally inferior water quality conditions that can be traced back to the 19th century.

Although irrigators throughout the Klamath River watershed will face TMDL regulations, Curtis said, early discussions involved equating the Klamath Water Project as a point source for pollution, which would have led to regulations that were much more draconian.

“At first, they wanted to treat the Klamath Project as a point source for pollution, meaning you’d have to have a permit, like a sewer plant,” Curtis said. “In order for the irrigators to meet that, they’d have to construct a water treatment plant. Now, we’ve progressed to a permit waiver process.”

Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Greg Addington, who represents about 5,000 water users on 1,400 family farms, said his organization is reviewing the Klamath River TMDLs for both Oregon and California.

“We also will be reviewing what our legal options may be,” Addington said. “Our concern is obviously the costs associated with compliance. It appears they could be staggering and yield very little in the way of results. Family farmers and ranchers here are already dealing with water supply issues and can’t afford another layer of regulatory imposed expense.”

Siskiyou County Farm Bureau Past-President Jim Morris said the plan to restore the Klamath River could also be a concern for farmers and ranchers there, specifically those along the Scott and Shasta rivers, tributaries of the Klamath River that already have TMDL requirements in place.

“As TMDL regulations are being put on those along the Klamath River, if water conditions don’t improve we want to know, what is the next step?” Morris said. “If it comes back that we need more clean water, we’re concerned that they may want to mitigate that by taking water from these downstream tributaries and that could impact us in a huge way.”

Another plan to improve water quality and restore the salmon population includes the removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, three in California and one in Oregon. The project to remove the dams would begin in 2020 under a proposal released by 26 stakeholders including dam owner PacifiCorp, Klamath Basin irrigators, native tribes, fishing groups, environmentalists and the U.S., California and Oregon governments. Not all farmers in the region support dam removal.

The Klamath Water Users Association—whose farmers were denied water in 2001 in order to benefit fish protected under the Endangered Species Act—is one of the 26 stakeholders and said it supports dam removal because irrigators in the Klamath Water Project believe this will provide them some certainty. Addington noted that the removal of the dams is a separate issue from the EPA water quality plan for the Klamath River.

“We need to deal with this TMDL with a (dam removal) settlement or without one. I think that over time, the settlement agreements have the best chance of improving water quality in the basin and could be the less costly way to implement changes, but apparently the TMDL can’t wait,” Addington said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)


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