Klamath Basin: Water pact crumbles in Congress
after years of work
The Oregonian/OregonLive by Jeff Mapes December 19, 2015
For years, the Klamath Basin water agreement was a feel-good
story about racial reconciliation, environmental recovery and
the power of working together.
It was an uplifting sequel to the huge protests by farmers
during an irrigation shutoff in 2001 and the death of thousands
of salmon in the overheated waters of the Klamath River a year
After years of negotiation, ranchers, farmers and tribes in the
Klamath Basin on the border of Oregon and California reached a
water-sharing agreement that included the bold step of removing
four aged dams on the Klamath River to restore the health of one
of the West's main salmon-producing waterways.
It became clear this week, however, that there won't be any
storybook ending, at least that anyone can see now.
Congress once again failed to pass legislation implementing the
Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and its associated pacts.
The agreement is set to expire Jan. 1, and nobody's quite sure
what's going to happen next.
"We collectively as a society missed an opportunity here, and I
don't think we'll have it again," said Greg Addington of the
Klamath Water Users Association, one of the main players in the
saga. "What it means for us in a nutshell is more continued
The inspiring tale that attracted so much attention masked the
fact that not everyone was singing Kumbaya. The agreement never
sold well either in solidly Republican Klamath County or on the
California side of the border, where the idea of removing dams
and tilting the scale toward environmental and tribal purposes
was regarded suspiciously.
"They try to say the community is for it, and it's not true at
all," said Klamath County Chairman Tom Mallams, noting that
almost all successful candidates in the area run against the
Legislation implementing the basin agreement has languished in
Congress in the years since Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger staged a celebratory
signing in Oregon's Capitol in 2010.
Among western Republicans, the idea of removing the dams has
been viewed with great suspicion, even though the aged
structures are relatively small hydroelectric producers, aren't
used for irrigation and have major fish-passage problems.
PacifiCorp, which owns the dams, has agreed to remove them
instead of going through the uncertainty and huge expense of
But congressional critics have long fretted that it could create
a precedent for fulfilling environmentalist fantasies for
widespread dam removal in the West.
Republican Rep. Greg Walden, who represents the Oregon side of
the basin, kept a careful distance from the agreement,
particularly when it came to dam removal. In the last year, he
softened his rhetoric about removing dams and has been
negotiating with Oregon's two senators, Democrats Jeff Merkley
and Ron Wyden, on legislation to move the agreement forward.
But those talks came to an end two weeks ago after Walden
unveiled a legislative draft that left out dam removal and
called for turning over 100,000 acres of federal land to Klamath
County and to California's Siskiyou County.
Walden, suggesting that the dams could potentially be taken out
through the regulatory process, said he was trying to figure out
a creative way to build support for the agreement among his
In the short run, Walden's proposal appeared to drive away Wyden
and Merkley. They said the idea of turning federal forests over
to the counties was a nonstarter in the Senate. The omnibus
spending bill -- once seen as a potential vehicle for Klamath
Basin language – passed Friday, and Congress went home for
"We're going to continue to work to find a solution that works
for the people in the basin and that can be passed in the House
and signed into law," said Walden spokesman Andrew Malcolm.
"We're looking for a viable resolution."
The senators released their own statement Friday, saying they
hope they can make progress when Congress returns next month –
but it's clear they expect Walden to drop his more controversial
ideas if anything is going to happen.
"We are hopeful that a path forward can still be found," the
senators said, "if there is an immediate commitment to put aside
unnecessary and unrelated policy disputes and instead work
toward legislative action first thing in January on an earnest
attempt to implement the locally developed agreements."
The path is getting rockier. One of the three tribes that signed
the agreement – the Yuroks in California – have backed away from
it, and Addington said some of the groups on the farm side are
starting to peel away as well.
A PacifiCorp official told the Capitol Press, an agricultural
newspaper, that the company will now seek to relicense its dams.
Conversely, WaterWatch, a Portland-based environmental group
that never supported the agreement, argues the dams can't be
brought up to modern standards and that it hopes to force their
removal through the federal regulatory process.
Meanwhile, Addington said irrigators will probably have to
unleash their lawyers to go into court to fight the Klamath
Tribes over water rights in the upper basin. The tribes won a
2013 ruling that they hold the superior water rights, but there
are still avenues for appeal.
Don Gentry, the Klamath tribal chairman, agreed that more
"We're going to be basically back in court with one another,"
Gentry said, "and that's a difficult thing. But we have to
represent our interests as best we can."
Gentry noted that many of his tribal members are feeling
restless. While they've lived within the terms of the agreement
for five years, "we haven't gotten any closer to all the things
The various signatories to the agreement are planning a
conference call Dec. 28 to talk over what might happen next.
Addington and Gentry say they hope the good will the signatories
have built up over the years while help them continue to
One thing everyone hopes for is a good water year to help smooth
In the meantime, Gentry said, supporters of the Klamath
agreement are feeling shell-shocked.
"As one person said today," he explained in a telephone
interview, "we're still going through the stages of grief."
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