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Irrigators clash over proposed Klamath deal

February 27, 2008
California Farm Bureau by Christine Souza

 

Irrigators who once stood alongside one another and protested the Klamath Basin water shut-off in 2001 are now at odds over a proposed settlement agreement that would potentially benefit one group of irrigators and may cause problems for others.

"The proposed settlement was a tough choice for Klamath irrigators," said Chris Scheuring, managing counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation's National Resources and Environmental Division. "At the same time, folks on the Shasta and Scott rivers have concerns about the blowback. All of it shows that species laws, in their current form, are pitting the human species against itself in a way that perhaps was not contemplated when they were enacted."

The proposed Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, released to the public by Klamath River Basin stakeholders in January, is a $985 million plan that would ensure irrigation water and affordable power for irrigators of the Klamath Water Project and revive the river's salmon populations. The deal, developed by an assortment of groups and agencies including farmers, tribes, fishermen and environmentalists, is contingent upon the removal of four dams on the Klamath River.

"This proposed agreement would implement a true watershed-wide approach to Klamath issues, something we have stressed since 2001," said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA), one of 26 stakeholders involved in the negotiations. "This is a product of more than two years of blood, sweat and tears. We believe, given the range of alternatives and needs of Klamath irrigators, that we have negotiated a successful package that secures our future as a viable agricultural economy."

For Klamath Basin irrigators, Addington said the KWUA did make some compromises in its water allotment, but said the association has tools that can help work with those and keep communities sustainable and keep agriculture in production for future generations.

"The agreement is multifaceted and will not be without some controversy," Addington said. "We have to look at what the alternatives are for us. For some groups, status quo is OK. If you are an irrigator in the Klamath Reclamation Project, the status quo is a frightening place to be where assurances related to water deliveries are year to year, month to month."

However, downstream Scott River and Shasta River valley irrigators, who were not at the table during settlement negotiations, are concerned about what this plan could mean for their farming operations.

"Siskiyou County Farm Bureau is concerned that during dry years, with no minimum flow established on the Klamath River, they will look to the Shasta and Scott rivers to make up the flow in times of drought and during dry summer months," said Siskiyou County Farm Bureau President Mike Luiz. "That would be detrimental to irrigators, striking a blow to Scott and Shasta valley agriculture."

Other areas of concern include higher power rates, encroachment of private property rights, a reduction in funding for restoration projects, increased regulations and water quality issues.

"The loss of the power generation capabilities of those dams is something that needs to be addressed," said Luiz, a Montague sheep rancher. "In California and across the West we are still bordering on a power crisis. Every summer we receive warnings of a power shortage and this is good green power that we will be pulling out, so how will they replace that?"

The removal of dams, Luiz said, will also reduce the value of homes located on the region's lakes and the Klamath River.

"If the dams are removed the value of these people's properties is going to be severely impacted. These homeowners are going to go from having lakefront property to desolation-front property," Luiz said. "People have purchased these properties to be next to the lakes and to take advantage of the recreation opportunities so the value of that property is going to be severely impacted."

Retired rancher Ernie Wilkinson, who serves as an associate director for the Siskiyou Resource Conservation District, estimates that over the course of the last 20 years, nearly $15 million has been spent on recovery projects in the Scott River valley. He is worried that these recovery dollars that have been spent on projects such as installing fish screens and riparian plantings, may be directed to other projects.

"We're concerned with fishery health overall because we get an awful lot of pressure from the California Department of Fish and Game to sustain habitat for fish," Wilkinson said. "My concern is that a fairly large portion of whatever is available in the way of recovery project funding may go elsewhere."

For Etna rancher Gary Black, who also works for the Siskiyou Resource Conservation District, one of the main problems for many in the Scott River and Shasta River valleys is not having had a seat at the table during the discussions.

"There are a lot of unknowns and there appears to be no way to fit into the process if we need to," Black said.

Klamath Basin farmer Luther Horsley, president of the KWUA, said Klamath Basin irrigators taking part in the negotiations had three primary objectives: a reliable source of water to irrigate crops; affordable power for irrigation and drainage pumps; and regulatory assurance from lawsuits related to the introduction of new species.

"We believe this agreement achieves those objectives," Horsley said. "We also feel by working together with other interests and parties along the river, we can achieve a lot more than we have from the past status quo of fighting and suing each other."

Horsley recalls how farmers suffered from the water shut-off of 2001, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service issued biological opinions under the Endangered Species Act that required higher water levels to protect endangered sucker fish and higher flows to protect threatened coho salmon.

"In 2001 it was devastating for us in the basin and we just know that we don't want to go through that again, not only for the farmers, but all of the other species that depend on the water life and habitat that we create," Horsley said.

The parties who were involved in the development of the settlement agree that the many restoration projects that the plan sets in motion, combined with the removal of the dams, will translate into significantly improved conditions for coho and other anandramous fish. The key to making this agreement work is the removal of the Iron Gate, J.C. Boyle, Copco1 and Copco2 dams which are owned by Oregon-based PacifiCorp. This would give threatened coho salmon and other fish species access to 300 miles of habitat in the river and improve water quality.

Negotiations are currently taking place with PacifiCorp to reach an agreement on the removal of the utility's dams. Stakeholders say the estimated $120 million tab to remove the dams should be paid for by PacifiCorp. PacifiCorp spokesperson Paul Vogel stated that the utility is currently reviewing the 256-page proposed agreement.

"We have made it pretty clear for a long time if dam removal is what is settled upon, we are willing to consider that option, but our customers have to be protected and not be paying the unreasonable cost of dam removal, plus replacement power, plus the liability," Vogel said. "Hand in hand with the liability is the science and what is an accurate scientific understanding of what the impacts are of taking these dams out."

Stakeholders have estimated the cost to implement the restoration is $985 million over 10 years. Of that total, $585 million would come from existing programs and the remaining $400 million would have to be authorized by Congress.

Settlement party negotiators have indicated initial support, but the agreement now needs approval of individual irrigation districts, tribal governments, fisheries groups and state and federal agencies.

(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

 
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