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Klamath pact supporters press bill’s passage


Capital Press by Mateusz Perkowski


A bill that would ratify dam removal and conservation funding along the Klamath River is running out of time for passage in Congress.

Time is running short for Congress to pass a Klamath basin water bill that supporters say is crucial in keeping the fragile peace between irrigators, Indian tribes and conservationists.

The Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act, which would ratify the removal of four hydroelectric dams and authorize funding for environmental restoration, is a crucial component in water use settlements between competing interests in the region.

“Basically, all the pieces are in place. All we need is for the last piece to be put in place by Congress,” said Richard Whitman, natural resources adviser to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was involved in the deal negotiations.

To make the bill more palatable for lawmakers, the amount of authorized federal spending was reduced from $750 million to roughly $500 million, he said.

Supporters have also sought to demonstrate community support and address other objections of lawmakers, Whitman said. “We’ve checked all the boxes we’re supposed to check at this point.”

The legislation was recently approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which allows it to be voted on by the whole Senate.

However, very little time remains before the current “lame duck” Congress adjourns for the year and a new slate of lawmakers moves into the U.S. Capitol in 2015. At that point, legislation currently under consideration would expire.

Supporters say the Klamath bill needs to pass now because a similar bill is unlikely to fair well under the next Congress and the delicate compromise among stakeholders may not hold out for much longer.

The “rubber band” uniting irrigators, tribes and conservationists is getting stretched very tight and may snap, said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

Support for the legislation among key irrigator groups in the area often gets overlooked due to the controversy over dam removal, he said.

Dam removal is intended to improve the function and water quality of the Klamath River for fish but has caused a great deal of controversy, with opponents claiming it will actually have negative environmental effects.

“For us, it’s not about dams,” Addington said. “It’s about water in the ditch.”

The Klamath Tribes are recognized by the Oregon Water Resources Department as “time immemorial” senior water rights holders in the basin, which means they can “call” water and cut off junior water rights holders.

Such calls can be devastating for irrigators during the droughts that the basin has experienced in recent years.

The settlement deal contains mechanisms that reduce the impact to irrigators, said Don Gentry, tribal chairman of the Klamath Tribes.

“It provides a softer landing for folks with junior water rights,” he said.

However, not everybody has lined up in support of the legislation.

Klamath County Commissioner Tom Mallams, a longtime opponent of the deal, said public opinion in the area is against dam removal.

“The local people still do not want it,” he said.

Removal of the J.C. Boyle dam would cost the county roughly $500,000 in property taxes and would flush hazardous sediments that have built up behind it down the river, Mallams said.

The four dams in question provide valuable flood control and their removal would cause the Klamath river to dry up in summer, he said.

Many irrigators in the upper Klamath basin, including Mallams, remain opposed to the deal as well, he said. “I feel like this is nothing more than a surrender.”

Irrigators who have signed onto the deal are supporting the legislation under duress, Mallams said.

In the case of PacifiCorp, the dams’ owner, the federal government has made clear that any required upgrades would be prohibitively expensive, so removal is the only option, he said. “They have a loaded gun to their head.”

Mallams said the leaders of Klamath County in Oregon and Sisikiyou County in California — where three of the dams are located — plan to send letters to their Congressional delegates in opposition to the bill.

Bill sponsor Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has vowed to push for the bill’s passage in the Senate and will try to attach it to “must pass” tax or spending legislation, said Keith Chu, his spokesperson.

“Getting anything to happen is a heavy lift with only a few weeks to go,” he said.

On the House side, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., is seen as instrumental to the bill’s chances of passage but hasn’t yet decided whether or not to support it.

The representative’s team is doing “due diligence” on the effects of the bill and people’s opinion of it, said Andrew Malcolm, his spokesperson.

“It’s something we’re looking at,” he said. “We need to understand all the implications of this before moving forward.”



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              Page Updated: Monday November 17, 2014 12:56 AM  Pacific

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