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Congress weighs in on Klamath water crisis but isn't likely to act
by Scott Learn, the Oregonian 6/20/13
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's hearing Thursday on the Klamath Basin water crisis has sparked hope among supporters that landmark deals reached three years to unite many of the basin's combatants will finally get through Congress.
But prospects for the Klamath Basin deals to win approval still look slim. That's despite a drought emergency, and the likely cutoff of water to hundreds of cattle ranches and hay farms this summer.
Both deals were approved in 2010, after five years of work, triggering celebrations in Salem. "There is no need for this conflict to rage on," then Gov. Ted Kulongoski said at the time.
One agreement requires removal of four PacifiCorp dams along the Klamath River. A separate restoration deal calls for an extra $500 million toward environmental restoration, and for water-sharing between irrigators and tribes seeking more water for fish.
"There are those in Congress who will simply balk at either the cost of the agreement or the removal of dams or both," he said. "These are significant issues that need to be addressed."
The congressional foot-dragging dismays the agreements' supporters, who say Oregon's delegation told them that if the basin came up with a solution on its own, they'd fight for approval.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, introduced a bill last year to implement the deals. It never got a committee hearing.
Besides Merkley, "we don't have anybody showing any leadership in Washington," said Jeff Mitchell, lead negotiator for the Klamath Tribes. "They all talk like they want to, but their actions seem to express something different."
In Washington, the political obstacles include a tight budget and Republican opposition to dam removal, particularly in the House.
Opposition has also surfaced closer to home, further complicating the political calculus.
Many "non-project" irrigators not fed by the area's federal reclamation project, which draws water from Upper Klamath Lake, opposed the restoration agreement as too firm on water reductions for ranchers and too soft on guaranteed supplies.
Klamath County voters endorsed the restoration agreement in 2010, but later elected Republican county commissioners who strongly opposed both dam removal and the restoration deal. In February, the commission voted to withdraw from the agreements.County Commissioner Tom Mallams, an off-project irrigator, was one of the victors, drawing Tea Party support to oust the incumbent.
The agreements' backers "know they're on a dying cause, and they're pulling out all the stops to try to keep it alive," Mallams said. "I don't think they're going to be successful."
Mallams favors more reservoirs or deepening Upper Klamath Lake to increase water storage. Given two species of threatened suckers in the basin, backers of the agreements say that would require unrealistic tinkering with the Endangered Species Act.
Supporters see reason for optimism.
A 2012 review cut federal costs for the restoration plan by more than a third over the first seven years. Oregon is also hoping for more financial support from conservation groups and California, whose ratepayers are spending much less than Oregon's for dam removal.
The agreements, including dam removal, would end up costing ratepayers less than dam improvements for fish passage, PacifiCorp officials say. Removing the dams would open 420 miles of habitat for coho salmon, also on the endangered species list.
And the agreements would set more stable, albeit lower, water supplies in dry years, reducing requests for federal emergency money, said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. The agreement also mandates a basinwide approach to restoration.
"We've been spending big money in the Klamath Basin for decades, but it has just been on random acts of restoration," he said.
Supporters also say the current crisis could budge opponents -- and Congress.
There's some historical evidence of that. Dry years in 2001 and 2002 led to a sharp water reductions for reclamation project farmers, sparking national protests, followed the next year by cuts in water for fish and a die-off of 33,000 chinook salmon in the Klamath River. That turmoil helped prompt negotiations.
This summer, "everything wrong in the Klamath could happen," said Craig Tucker, the Karuk Tribe's Klamath campaign coordinator. That includes cattle ranches drying up, birds dying in the basin's national wildlife refuges along the Pacific flyway, and fish dying in the Klamath.
"If we are going to be able to push this thing through Congress, now is the time," Tucker said.
One important nuance this year: Off-project irrigators, many among the strongest critics of the deals, are going to be hardest hit.
Those irrigators tap tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake. Earlier this year, Oregon granted the Klamath Tribes senior water rights to much of that water. The tribesexercised their rights early this month, prompting shut offs.
The tribes haven't exercised rights to water used by irrigators on reclamation project lands, who signed on to the agreements.
Cattle rancher Becky Hyde leads a group of off-project irrigators that support the agreements. She said she's hearing "a lot of interest" from off-project irrigators who haven't supported the settlements in the past.
But there's still skepticism about the restoration agreement. Roger Nicholson, a cattle rancher and head of another off-project group, said he doesn't want to be part of the restoration agreement, but he's open to reaching a "parallel agreement" to share water equitably.
"We need leadership from the governor to get the parties to the table and get this settled," Nicholson said. "We want a settlement. We really do."
Richard Whitman, Gov. John Kitzhaber's natural resources policy director, said Oregon, one of the signatories to the restoration agreement, is "not wedded to having to stick to the details of what's in the agreement" and would work with Congress to bring more people into the deal.
He cautioned against expecting too much. Good progress would be to get a bill through committee with support from "a broader set of interests," Whitman said.
Towslee, Wyden's spokesman, would say only that actually introducing a bill this year is "likely."
"Ron has asked all the people who are coming to the hearing to come with fresh ideas," he said. "Hopefully, we can find a path forward."
-- Scott Learn
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