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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.


Reality ignored 
(followed by ONRC McCarthy's original commentary)

Jim McCarthy (July 19 commentary) is a classic "windshield manager" from another country.

He is critical of the official United States House of Representative field-hearing process that occurred at the Ross Ragland Performing Arts Center on July 17. This was a very important process of our government.

McCarthy is critical of the proposals to enhance the Endangered Species Act. He uses the ploy of equivoque to polarize the issue. In McCarthy's mind, you are either for the current interpretation of the act, or you are trying to "dismember the ESA."

Not one person involved with the hearing is trying to gut the law. The hearing focus was on ways to make a 30-year-old law better. Everyone on the panel of experts agreed that peer-reviewed science will improve the Endangered Species Act.

McCarthy reminds me of a conversation I had 10 years ago with one of his comrades from Oregon Trout. The conversation ended with the statement to me: "The concept of sound, verifiable science that has been peer-reviewed is a concept that the environmental community will not support."

As a windshield manager, McCarthy looks down on the Klamath Basin and sees a refuge for wildlife that is freckled with productive agriculture. His textbook solution to his perceived problem is to end refuge farming.

While he tries to camouflage his socialist economic agenda with a flavor of capitalism, he ignores reality. Crop production in the Klamath Basin complements wildlife. Elimination of farming on the national wildlife refuges would do little to bolster our economy, and it would not save much, if any, water diverted from storage.

McCarthy is wrong. The Oregon National Resources Council is wrong. We need irrigated agriculture in our nation and in the Klamath Basin. Dismantling our infrastructure will harm our society and it will harm wildlife.

By staying in Ashland and trying to resolve perceived and real problems in Klamath Falls, McCarthy has exposed the agenda of ONRC. The agenda has become a mantra - dismantle productive agrarian communities for the benefit of society as a whole.

I know of one very good example of the result of this direction. Perhaps McCarthy can spend this coming winter in North Korea. Take a whole bunch of photos through the windshield (read bars) and offer a policy analysis to the media in a country that is starving to death.

William D. Kennedy

Klamath Falls


Phasing out lease lands would benefit farmers, refuges, Basin residents

Published July 19, 2004

By Jim McCarthy

Guest columnist

U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Wally Herger, R-Calif., brought some political theater to Klamath Falls this month, hoping to gain momentum for their efforts to dismember the Endangered Species Act.

These elected officials claim the Klamath Basin's painful water woes will disappear if we eliminate protections for America's fish, wildlife, and the places they call home. Their prescription coincides with their anti-conservation views, as well as the financial interests of their major campaign contributors. But given the facts on the ground, their judgment is as flawed as the so-called Klamath solutions produced by the Bush administration - and backed by the two Congressmen - since 2001.

To review their poor record: In 2002, the Bush administration chose to ignore the reality that there wasn't enough water to safely supply all of the Basin's competing needs. As a result, 34,000 Klamath River salmon died in what may have been the largest adult fish kill in American history. A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report concluded low river flows - caused by irrigation diversions - sparked the kill.

Since the fish kill, the administration has relied on a government water bank to maintain meager river flows, while leaving the region's crucial national wildlife refuge wetlands bone dry. This risky, shortsighted, and expensive plan depends heavily on federal tax dollars to pay irrigators to deplete vital groundwater, often putting neighboring wells at risk. Under this policy, both ends of the river lose.

Eliminating the Endangered Species Act won't change the fact that the river needs water. The thousands of salmon killed in 2002 were mostly Chinook, a non-endangered species vital to the coastal economy and Native American tribes. The federal government guaranteed the tribes' rights to fish for Chinook long before the Klamath Irrigation Project existed. Those commitments include the water rights to maintain robust fish populations. Gutting the Endangered Species Act won't eliminate those rights, or change the fact that the tribes hold the most senior water rights in the basin.

Not enough to go around

With or without this law, conflicts over water will only increase until we fix the Klamath's central problem: too many users chasing too little water.

In their rush to exploit the Klamath crisis, Walden and Herger have ignored or blocked fair and cost-effective solutions that would yield benefits for both ends of the basin. One solution is phasing out commercial farming lease program on Tule Lake and Lower Klamath national wildlife refuges. This move would significantly reduce the heavy toll of summer irrigation on fish, wildlife, and fishing communities, while improving agriculture's economic strength, and increasing natural water storage and groundwater recharge.

Walden and Herger have fought to protect the lease lands, but the Bureau of Reclamation program has actually drained tens of millions of dollars from the region. Between 1980 and 1996, irrigators leasing the refuge lands sent Washington, D.C., about $1.9 million a year in rents. A tiny fraction of that money trickled back to the Klamath, in payments to counties based on the rented federal acres inside their boundaries. For example, when $1.9 million in lease land fees went to Reclamation in 1996, a paltry $10,381 came back to Klamath County. Some $166,773 came back to Siskiyou County that year, and $32,994 came back to Modoc County. Thus in 1996, the lease land program drained nearly $1.7 million dollars from the Basin economy, never to return. This process goes on year after year.

Certainly, the lease land program is a good deal for the handful of participating irrigators. But is it fair to the community?

Because Reclamation offers good land for below market rates, lease land users have little reason to rent from private landowners. Who could blame them? But the millions spent to rent federal land will never help local landowners pay their mortgages, upgrade their farm equipment, or send their kids to college. The money just goes to Washington.

Meanwhile, private land rental prices stay unprofitably low. Local landowners go bankrupt because they can't pay their mortgages. Elderly farmers can no longer rely on renting their land to finance a retirement. If phasing-out the lease land program means former lease land renters take their $1.9 million of annual rental business to local landowners, there is no doubt a phase-out will boost the local economy - and help keep the community whole.

County finances would fare the same or better if the lease lands became refuge-managed marsh. Federal law requires the refuges to make yearly payments to local counties for the lands they manage, similar to Reclamation's annual lease lands payments. For example, between 1994 and 2003, the Klamath Basin refuges - not including the lease lands - paid Klamath County an average of $105,000 per year, or about $2.20 per acre. In 1996, the refuges paid Klamath County $2.88 per acre. Meanwhile, Reclamation rented the lease lands for $86 per acre on average - and gave Klamath County $1.88 per acre.

Irrigation costs would drop

A lease land solution could also significantly reduce irrigation costs after the Klamath Project's electrical subsidy expires in 2006. To keep water drained off of the lease lands, Tulelake Irrigation District pays approximately $40,000 yearly to pump an average of 90,000 acre-feet of water through Sheepy Ridge Tunnel. Post-2006, this cost is expected to rise to $700,000 annually. But if Tule Lake's lease lands were returned to wetlands, the refuge's potential water retention capacity would increase by some 100,000 acre-feet, reducing or eliminate potentially astronomical pumping costs while providing natural water storage to meet the needs of fish and wildlife.

In addition, leaving significantly more water on Tule Lake refuge would mean better aquifer recharge and reduced pumping costs for well users in the area. If Walden supported a lease land phase-out instead of paying irrigators to mine Klamath aquifers, irrigators could see well levels rise. Right now, they're watching groundwater levels drop out from under them.

A lease land phase-out is a fair deal for the whole Basin. It would reduce summer irrigation demand by some 50,000 acre-feet, during a time when flows and lake levels are critical for fish. This added water security - plus 100,000 acre feet of added water retention capacity - could be achieved entirely on public lands at low cost to taxpayers. Klamath communities should join in urging Walden and Pombo to stop practicing political theatrics while the whole basin suffers, and show true leadership by supporting real solutions to the Klamath's problems.

The Author

Jim McCarthy is a policy analyst for the Oregon Natural Resources Council in Ashland.

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NOTE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, any copyrighted
material  herein is distributed without profit or payment to those who have
expressed  a  prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit
research and  educational purposes only. For more information go to:






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