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Settlement plan not perfect, but better than more of the same

by Dan Keppen, Guest Writer Herald and News 2/3/08

   Two dozen diverse parties – including some who previously only met in courtrooms – have developed the proposed Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. It is encouraging to see so many in our local community weigh in with their observations on this massive document.
   I’m still working my way through this tome, and I’m finding that there are things I like about it, and things that give me heartburn.
   I don’t care for the settlement proposal’s provisions to retire agricultural water rights above Upper Klamath Lake. I also have concerns about the precedent that might be set with respect to removing dams on other western river systems, where reservoirs actually supply irrigators and where dam removal costs will far exceed costs to install fish ladders or make other fish passage improvements.
   There are also some positive aspects contained in the settlement which I believe will benefit the Klamath Irrigation Project.
   I worked for the Klamath Water Users Association from 2001 to 2005, and during that time I saw first-hand how the Klamath Reclamation Project is operated. Annual Project operations are governed by a variety of biological opinions, court-mandated directives, and governmental obligations that have essentially gutted the original designed intent of the Klamath Project: to store water for use in dry months by farmers and ranchers.

Lots of uncertainty    

In essence, the Klamath Project is now operated to first take care of downstream salmon, suckers in the lake, and federal tribal trust obligations. Then, Project irrigators get what’s left over (if any). The federal refuges get what’s left over after that.

   Most people probably have no idea how much uncertainty surrounds this type of arrangement. There is simply no way for a Project irrigator to assume that he will have a reliable water supply, particularly near the end of each month, when minimum levels in Upper Klamath Lake must be met to avoid a potential Endangered Species Act lawsuit. These circumstances become truly dire if downstream tribes – citing federal tribal trust obligations – call for additional “emergency” water to be released into the river to try to help diseased fish or stranded minnows.
   If lake level minimums cannot be achieved, the A Canal can be shut down, which very nearly happened in June 2003, as was widely reported. Unknown to most people, the Project has very narrowly missed similar, disastrous situations several other times since the 2001 curtailment. These shutdowns were avoided by last-minute actions undertaken by irrigators to reduce water use, intense and heated discussions among biologists representing the various interests, and gradually improved collaboration among governmental agencies.
   The proposed settlement would provide the Klamath Project with a volume of water on March 1 of every year, depending on projected inflows to Upper Klamath Lake. Surface water alone should meet the demand in 50 percent of the years.
   For those drier years, funds would be provided to study how to make the Klamath Project more efficient and how to set up a permanent water bank for the water-short years. Funding for this program will be no less than $100 million over 10 years and will be used for well water and payment for temporarily idling land.
   Irrigators and districts will have the responsibility to design and implement this program. Importantly, the settlement would put an end to mid-summer tribal trust “calls” from all Tribes who sign the agreement.
   When I look at this settlement, I compare it to the alternative status quo situation, which is untenable. For the Klamath Project, the settlement will provide a reliable and known supply of water every March 1.
   I believe it provides more water and predictability than irrigators would get under the current biological assessments and biological opinions from the federal agencies.


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