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Agreement fuels Klamath discord

In wake of historic dam-removal deal, doubts linger over ultimate outcome

by Mitch Lies, Capital Press 6/10/10

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. -- Don Boyd, a third-generation farm equipment dealer in Merrill, Ore., has watched the water crisis in the Klamath Basin decimate the area's economy.

"People that work for me aren't going to movies," he told the Oregon Board of Agriculture at a recent meeting in Klamath Falls. "They aren't eating out as much.

"This is devastating to this community," Boyd said.

Sales of tractors, balers and windrowers are down 66 percent at Floyd A. Boyd Co., he said. And business in his service department is off 55 percent.

In addition, he said, the "can-do" attitude and the unity that once permeated the area is harder to find.

"I have two kids and I'm telling them not to come back to Klamath Falls," Boyd said.

From a conflicted citizenry to conflicting biological opinions for three endangered fish -- one calling for water managers to keep water in Klamath Lake and another calling for managers to release the water -- the Klamath Basin these days is home to conflict.

Long-time friends won't speak to one another. Neighbors accuse progressive farmers of selling out. And even the most tolerant residents question the logic of those on the other side of the fence.

"That's the problem with this whole thing, ... everyone is blaming everyone else," said Bob Sanders, of JB Angus Ranch. "We've all got the same purpose, we're just looking at it different ways."

At the core of the dispute is an agreement on how to resolve environmental and irrigation needs in and around the Klamath Reclamation Project. It's a deal many don't agree with.

The pact between farmers, Indian tribes, fishermen and environmentalists calls for conserving water and removing four dams on the Klamath River in exchange for assurances of water delivery.

Farmers and ranchers under the plan are voluntarily conserving water as part of a deal to leave in-stream thousands of acre-feet of water that would otherwise be used to irrigate crops.

In exchange, the tribes are agreeing to limit their calls on water, and environmentalists are agreeing to forego litigation in favor of a lengthy dispute resolution process.

The precedent-setting plan has drawn praise from high-ranking Obama administration officials and top state officials in Oregon and California.

"It's all about keeping productive, viable agriculture in this area for the next 100 years," said Greg Addington, executive director of Klamath Water Users Association.

But opponents say environmentalists, tribes and fishermen were handed far too many concessions at the expense of farmers and ranchers.

"We didn't get anything we asked for," said Tom Mallams, who ranches outside the Klamath Reclamation Project.

Mallams said opponents were willing to make concessions, but in exchange they wanted affordable power, stable water deliveries and protection from lawsuits over the Endangered Species Act.

The agreement, Mallams said, provides none of that.

"We're typecast as unbending, but we've compromised all over the place," Mallams said.

"The KBRA doesn't give us assurances," said Bill Kennedy, a Klamath Basin rancher who uses off-project and on-project water. "I've asked over and over to show me where it says we're assured water."

"We're giving up major, permanent concessions for some hoped-for benefits," Mallams said.

When asked why he believes backers agreed to the plan, Mallams said, "The project guys are desperate because they have been threatened so long with another water shutoff (similar to 2001)."

Among many keys to implementing the agreement is the initiation of habitat and water conservation plans that require upwards of $90 million a year in federal funding.

Hopes are that adding programs to an existing suite of conservation opportunities will induce more farmers to leave water in-stream for fish.

Opting into the programs, however, can be a high-stakes gamble for ranchers who for decades have relied on irrigation supplies to keep pastures lush in spring and summer months.

Ranchers Paul and Cheri Little said it was a leap of faith when in 2003 they stopped irrigating their pastures under a federally funded program administered by the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust.

Under the program, the Natural Resources Conservation Service pays the Littles through the trust to leave water in-stream.

Their pastures in the first few years were over-run with weeds, but the Littles, who farm near Fort Klamath, stuck to the program. Today their land's carrying capacity has improved dramatically as the pastures changed from what the Littles call wet grasses to dry grasses.

The Littles said their neighbors originally opposed their decision to participate in the program.

"Some people still won't even speak to us," Cheri Little said. "But we could see the writing on the wall."

Nearby, Jim Popson, of JA Cox Ranch, said his family has used federal funds to help pay for planting hundreds of willow trees and more than 2 miles of fences the family has erected to improve the riparian habitat of Seven Mile Creek.

Between the conservation work of the Popsons and the Littles, the creek, which formerly ran dry in summer months, today maintains a healthy flow year-round.

"I remember the old days when we were growing up and there were fish in the creek," Cheri Little said. "Now we're starting to see that again."

The Littles and the Popsons believe the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement could dramatically increase conservation work occurring in the basin.

But Kennedy, who belongs to three irrigation districts, said the conservation work called for in the plan is already occurring and will continue with or without the plan.

Further, Kennedy said, Congress is incapable of providing funds for habitat conservation as it struggles with a massive federal debt.

Kennedy believes the basin's farmers are better off going through adjudication -- qualifying their water rights through administrative review -- rather than subjecting themselves to provisions of the KBRA.

"Leadership has done a good job of creating the perception that this is the best deal for everyone," Kennedy said. "But it's not."

"There are some good things in the KBRA," he said, such as a call to zero out the reclamation project's debt and calls for habitat conservation. "But that's been going on for years," he said.

Further, Mallams said, the KBRA works against farmers in that it calls for leaving more water in-stream in drought years -- when farmers and ranchers need it most -- and leaving less water in- stream in high-water years -- when less water is needed.

Only by completing adjudication will farmers and ranchers know their allocations, Kennedy said. And the KBRA is prejudicing adjudication in favor of tribal interests, he said.

"How could it not?" Kennedy said.

Ultimately, the KBRA won't be ratified until the secretary of the interior authorizes dam removal, a decision that isn't expected before 2012.

In the meantime, Mallams said opponents' voices are beginning to be heard.

Two candidates who support the KBRA, including an incumbent county commissioner, lost by large margins in the May 18 primary elections. And Mallams said KBRA opponents will "run out" the remaining two Klamath County commissioners -- both of whom support the KBRA -- in two years when they come up for re-election.

Mallams said the offices of Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., contacted KBRA opponents after the May 18 elections.

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