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As Congress dithers, parties becoming resigned to KBRA’s demise
Capital Press 12/17/15
As Congress dithers, parties becoming resigned to KBRA’s demise
Tim Hearden, Capitol Press Dec. 17, 2015
KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — While Congress dithers over the Klamath Basin’s water agreements, the parties to the nearly 6-year-old deals are becoming resigned to their likely collapse at the year’s end.
A panel of federal and state officials, tribal members, environmentalists and other participants in the 2010 accords has set a conference call for Dec. 28 to discuss termination of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement — an ominous date for the deals’ proponents and a light at the end of a long tunnel for their detractors.
PacifiCorp, whose plan to remove its four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River sparked much of the controversy, is now resuming its effort to relicense the dams, company spokesman Bob Gravely said.
With the Karuk Tribe — a key water right holder on the Klamath River — already having walked away from the pacts and the Klamath Tribes signaling their intention to do so, some of the irrigation districts that had signed on are also ready to walk away, said Greg Addington, the Klamath Water Users Association’s executive director.
The result could be what many growers and others in the basin have been dreading — a return to drastic irrigation shutoffs and cutbacks and protracted court battles over water rights.
“Our members have made it clear,” said tribal chairman Don Gentry, whose Klamath Tribes have the most senior of water rights in the Upper Klamath Basin. “We’ve been honoring the KBRA since 2010. It’s been five years, and our native fisheries and Lost River and shortnose suckers are in worse condition now than when we signed the agreements.
“We agreed to provide water at certain levels with the idea that legislation would move forward,” he said.
Bills to authorize removal of the dams have languished in Congress since 2011. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., a longtime opponent of dam removal, unveiled an eleventh-hour draft bill on Dec. 3 to move forward on other aspects of the agreements while putting approval of dam removal in the lap of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Walden’s bill won praise from Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who said proposed federal land transfers to the Klamath Tribes in exchange for waiving senior water rights “are ideas I could strongly support in order to move forward.”
However, the bill received a cool reaction from proponents of the Klamath agreements, who have warned that water-sharing components of the pacts could crumble if Congress doesn’t authorize the package — including dam removal — before the end of the year.
So far, no efforts have been made to merge Walden’s bill with one by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., which includes dam removal but has failed to advance beyond the upper chamber’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee. And lawmakers don’t appear to be in any hurry to get a bill passed.
“We had hoped people would agree to remain at the table” into 2016, Walden spokesman Andrew Malcolm said. “We’re hoping that what will work for people on Dec. 31 will still work on Jan. 1 or Jan. 2.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office did not return a call from the Capital Press seeking comment about a timeline for moving Walden’s bill forward.
The 42 signatories of the pacts that included the dam removals as well as water-sharing and numerous conservation efforts in the basin already renewed the agreements once, in late 2012. However, looming deadlines lend more of a sense of urgency this time, proponents say.
“I think this time is different,” said Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “We’re a short period of time … from deadlines when this is all supposed to happen. We’ve done everything that’s been required in this, including finding non-federal money for dam removal.”
Already, regulatory agencies are resuming the task of reviewing PacifiCorp’s dam-relicensing application, which the company has estimated would cost at least $300 million and leave the company exposed to other costs from litigation and added water quality regulations. Under the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, the cost to PacifiCorp’s ratepayers would be capped at $200 million.
Trust funds from surcharges to PacifiCorps customers for dam removal have amassed more than $100 million, which will either be refunded or used to meet relicensing conditions if the Klamath agreements die, Gravely said.
The Karuk Tribe and other proponents of removing the dams have vowed to urge the state water boards to deny PacifiCorp’s relicensing applications under the Clean Water Act, which would force the dams to be removed anyway. But such a denial would be unprecedented, Gravely said.
Meanwhile, local opposition to dam removal has become more entrenched in the Klamath Basin as opponents have been elected to majorities on the Klamath County Board of Commissioners and several irrigation district boards.
“I’d like more time,” said Addington, whose KWUA represents irrigation districts in the Klamath Reclamation Project. “I for one and my organization would say we want to salvage this thing, and we’d be ready to have a conversation about that. But the Yurok Tribe has made it clear that it wants to move in a different direction … and the Klamath Tribes have made a similar statement.
“I just think we risk a harder-line element saying collaboration didn’t work” if the parties try to keep the agreements together, he said.
Without the water pacts in place, growers in the Upper Klamath Basin could face another water crisis this spring like the one they encountered in 2013, when a total shutoff of irrigation water prompted landowners to begrudgingly work out their own water-sharing agreement with the tribes that was also contingent on the dams being removed.
While project irrigators have a stipulated settlement with the tribes that will remain even if the KBRA dies, the lack of an agreement could put more pressure on those growers’ water supplies, too, as more water for fish is sought under the Endangered Species Act, Addington said.
As to whether any future agreement could be salvaged from the wreckage, Addington said he’s unsure.
“Either … the KBRA is going to be a footnote in the interesting history of water in the Klamath Basin, or it’ll be the next step to something bigger,” Addington said. “I think it’s too early to say.
“I hate football analogies, but I feel like we got to the goal line and were just not able to punch it in,” he said. “We’ve got a House bill out there and a Senate bill out there … I just wish the folks in Congress would do what all the parties did, which is to lock themselves in a room and get it done. It’s the season of miracles, so who knows?”
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Page Updated: Thursday December 17, 2015 11:34 PM Pacific
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