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Can Congress help the Klamath Basin restore itself? It must

Oregonian editorial 11/22/14

klamath2.JPGIn this file photo from 2013, rancher Ken Willard works at his Eagle Butte Ranch in Sprague River. At that time, he told The Oregonian: "If they shut the water off, it's the life blood of all the ranchers. I hope to God we can keep it going." (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian) Print By The Oregonian Editorial Board  Email the author | Follow on Twitter  on November 22, 2014 at 3:00 PM, updated November 22, 2014 at 3:10 PM

No place in the American West has experienced the desperate, at times acrimonious, competition for water as it has played out in the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon. A diverse landscape the size of Maryland with portions reaching into northern California, the arid Klamath is a place of distinct beauty and rich heritage from its native tribes and expansive farms – all connected by the seasonal supply of water running through it and celebrated for the thousands of migratory birds that depend on it.

But a federal shutoff to Klamath irrigators in a drought-stricken 2001 was intended to save fish protected by the Endangered Species Act and saddled farmers and ranchers with losses exceeding $40 million. A compensatory move by the White House in 2002 to ensure water flows to farmers helped trigger one of the largest die-offs of adult salmon in western history, enraging tribes that would assert their rights to healthy fish – a right that was fully ensured, in 2013, when an Oregon judge found the Klamath Tribes to be the most senior water-rights holders in the Upper Klamath Basin. In-between, tribe-hating flared in Klamath Falls, ravaging drought returned, regulators decided four dams in the Klamath system needed expensive retrofits to aid fish passage, and Congress avoided action on a bill that would have authorized locally developed water-sharing agreements.

Hope, however, like water, springs eternal – or at least seasonally. The lame duck Congress now has before it the Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act, which won bipartisan approval in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month and is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley. The act's provisions would authorize three agreements hammered out in the Klamath by dozens of stakeholder groups in the basin. The provisions should be made into law -- if a brave member of the House could please stand up and help make it so.

The Klamath struggle has gone on long enough. Just two weeks remain in the capitol for the Klamath agreements to win congressional authorization. The agreements provide more certainty for those farming and ranching; pay certain irrigators to use less or no water; honor the tribes' right to healthy fish runs; and improve the water-holding capacity of the land by, among other things, repairing marshes. Significantly, however, one of the three agreements calls for the removal of four dams in the Klamath system, and this has been a rallying cry for disaffected Klamath and Siskyou county commissioners and some farmers who find support from Oregon Republican congressman Greg Walden. Walden, in a recent essay in the Klamath Herald and News, referred to dam removal as a "non-starter" without saying why and that the Klamath agreements should be broken apart and passed only as each wins across-the-board support. It is worth noting that the dams are privately owned by a utility company that wants them removed, lest federally required relicensing of the dams saddle ratepayers with far higher costs than their removal.

{Oregonian editorials Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian editorial board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Members of the editorial board are N. Christian Anderson III, Mark Hester, Helen Jung, Erik Lukens  and Len Reed. To respond to this editorial:  Post your comment below, submit a commentary piece,  or write a letter to the editor. If you have questions about  the opinion section,  contact Erik Lukens,  editorial and commentary editor,  at elukens@oregonian.com  or 503-221-8142.}

The Klamath struggle has gone on long enough. The basin's full-on agricultural development owes to the U.S. government's creation, in 1905, of the Klamath Project but finds subsequent complication by the U.S. government's passage, in 1973, of the Federal Endangered Species Act and then the government's long-overdue restoration, in 1986, of the Klamath Tribes. Throughout, farmers grew food, fish migrated, birds flew, tribes re-engaged – and wildly variable snowpack and drought tested them all. Now it's time to fix it by funding policies that stipulate the sharing of the basin's painfully finite resource: water. The price to the federal government for implementation has been trimmed to about $30 million a year over 15 years – a comparatively small amount to help ensure vitality to a regional economy worth more than $700 million annually. It's only right that the federal government would nose into its own creation to help set things right. Just two weeks remain in the nation's capitol for the Klamath agreements to win congressional authorization. As of late last week, Merkley was scrambling to explain the dam-removal piece to colleagues as benign – and that their removal, desired by their private owner, would send no signals that other dams, such as federally owned behemoths on the Snake River, could be next. He and Wyden, aware Congress would likely do only so much in such a short time, also sought to attach their Klamath authorizations within mega-bills addressing tax extensions, defense authorization and appropriations to keep the government open.

At this hour, it doesn't really matter how the authorization takes shape so long as it does. The culture and economy of the Klamath Basin depend upon it.

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kukui8 hours ago

Yes, there is poetry in a river.

A favorite essay of mine on the shelf is Living Water, by Ernest Braun & David Cavagnaro.  A wonderful idyll of a river from its origins to its fusion with the sea.

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merwinwfinzork11 hours ago

It was always Fascinating to watch -- every.single.time the feds had to take a decision on how to deal with the water in the Klamath Basin, for years they decided to err in favor of onion and alfalfa irrigation, at the expense of the lake, the fish, the tribes and every other non-agriculture use. The farmers were always happy with that -- they got water that just wasn't theirs. The tribes had the senior water right, but it got ignored.  In essence, the farmers simply Took it without compensation. It took years for that problem to be remediated, but at long last some courts were courageous enough actually to enforce The Law on the matter. The water was the tribes' - not the farmers. Now one can P&M about that to their heart's content, but that's the Legal side of things. There's something about a River that's actually a River -- and not a string of tepid lakes.  It has fish in it, it flows naturally to the ocean, and does the sorts of things that Rivers actually do, and benefits those whose lives and well-being depend on it.  Taking the river away and just Giving it to a bunch of farmers so they can grow things in a desert is merely to substitute one set of commercial values for another. There is a value called Justice. It trumps money -- or it should. Any congresscritter who would work against Justice in favor of Money ought to have his values seriously questioned.


VoxDundee9 hours ago

@merwinwfinzork Right - a Great Injustice - Reparations, etc. are in order. But...in your heart of hearts, you know full well when push comes to shove...questions will be raised & hands wrung vs. as to how many spuds, onions, etc. are being exported.    

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merwinwfinzork4 hours ago

@VoxDundee @merwinwfinzork No -- not reparations. But restoration, certainly. The water should go to those with the senior water right, for whatever They choose to do with it. That would be the tribes.

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hilaryclinto1 day ago

The Klamath water rape is NOT in the Klamath River from Oregon. The Klamath is but one river,  born of the Wood,  Williamson, Sprague Rivers,  and they are combined in Klamath Lake,  a shallow lake,  the largest natural one in Oregon.  It leaves the lake warmed to lethal, and collects from other streams before the dams.  And after the last dam,  it enters California,  to be fed by the Shasta River (125% irrigation subscribed),  the Scott River (de-watered by irrigation with some ranch well water Federally purchased to keep some fish alive in pools) and others down stream,  now mostly coming from watersheds destroyed by fire in the last two decades,  until if meets the Trinty River,  which is equal in flow historically.  The Trinity arises from snow fields high in the Trinity Alps.  It is cold water,  and the North Fork fills Trinity Reservoir,  the third largest in California,  and releases make hydro power and are caught by a second dam,  and diverted to a canal and tunnels,  going through sets of penstocks and reservoirs making more hydropower on its way to the Sacramento River,  which will convey that water to the giant pumps in the Sacramento Delta where the water is conveyed uphill all the way to the Westlands Irrigation District,  the largest in CA at over 600,000 acres with a right to 3 million acre feet of the Trinity river.  Before reforms the last year of the Clinton Presidency,  the WID was getting over 95% of the annual flow of the NorthFork Trinity River,  the coldest water in the Klamath Watershed.  Interior Sec Babbitt reduced that flow to the contracted 65% of annual flow.  

So when the salmon died in 2002,  it was because the WID would not let a drop of THEIR water down stream for salmon.  In the interim,  things have changed. Twice WID has sued to stop US Bur Rec from releasing small amounts of water to cool the river and keep salmon alive.  Twice WID has lost.  This year,  2014,  was a significant drought year,  and the Klamath has had above normal salmon returns in both 2013 and 2014.  No significant fish losses due to the naturally warm Klamath River waters.  As the sun goes south in August and Sept.,  the river gets shaded.  Diurnal temp ranges increase and frosts come to the highlands.  The river begins to cool as it always has.  The salmon that return early to the Federal hatchery are protected by cold water releases from Trinity Reservoir.  The First People's fishery is successful at reducing the oxygen demand of too many salmon for too little,  too warm water.  So the Indian net fisheries and Bur Rec cold water releases have kept the river from having a repeat of the 2002 fiasco.  

However,  CA Ag interests and constant litigation to gain more water (with politicians ridiculing the ESA, from both sides of the aisle) at the expense of ESA listed Delta smelt,  various threatened salmon runs,  will not end soon.  For now,  the dam issue is not the panacea suggested,  but more of a political trophy really,  really desired by the soon to be minority Oregon delegation.  Too bad they didn't have the horsepower to get CA Democrats on their side before the election.  Now the issue is to maintain the cold water releases from Trinity Reservoir.  Those are what save salmon.  The last 12 years of mostly drought have proven that tactic to be invaluable.  And, with the dams intact,  no need to build new gas fired turbines to replace the lost hydro power.


Len Reed | lreed@oregonian.com1 day ago

@hilaryclinto Thank you for the full take on the region's complex hydrology. As for California democrats, please note that Sen. Ron Wyden, in announcing his and Sen. Merkley's bill to authorize the Klamath agreements, cited key support of California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Feinstein was quoted as saying:

“California is in the midst of a historic drought, and this bill—in particular the authorization of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement—will help Northern California.The three agreements authorized by the bill will improve water supply reliability, environmental recovery and economic growth for a wide range of California stakeholders. These agreements also demonstrate the benefits of different groups coming together in a spirit of compromise and acting on behalf of the greater good.”

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chiselbit22 hours ago

@hilaryclinto  There is also Klamath water diverted to the Rogue Valley via Fourmile, Howard Prairie, and Hyatt .reservoirs.. This water used to be for orchards but most are gone replaced by houses and golf courses. FlagShare

Oyvez ismir1 day ago

Sometimes the only way to take a step forward is to take a step backward. We overly developed western water systems, and need to undo some of that development if we are going to preserve native fish and wildlife. Congress needs to step up and implement the plan agreed to by all the stakeholders. Otherwise we are in for years of struggle with no one coming out ahead. 


VoxDundee8 hours ago

@Oyvez ismir Am I to presume this would also apply to the Central Arizona Project (336 miles of canals, plus one million acres of irrigated farm land, and some municipalities such as Tucson and Phoenix, etc.)?  Lot of cotton and stuff north of Tucson.

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roos1 day ago

Sorry, but there is no solution that will turn back the clock to the glory days of the 1950's through 1970's.  They have cut down most all of the old growth timber and, unlike the Coast Range, the replanted forests aren't growing that well in a desertified ecosystem.  They have drained, diked, and ditched the former Basin wetlands and extended the farmland into areas that require pumping water uphill or drilling wells that require more pumping from a shrinking aquifer. What the dreamers and, now, the Oregonian Editorial Board propose will only succeed if Congress appropriates a ton of money to subsidize the economics back into an overwrought ecosystem.  This would simply up the ante on a classic case of welfare farming.  This is great farmland, but there needs to be a limit on the number of irrigated acres as well as the level of government subsidy.  FlagShare

Len Reed | lreed@oregonian.com1 day ago

@roos Your term "overwrought ecosystem" may well apply. But the 2010 agreements awaiting congressional authorization now do limit irrigation. There seems ample recognition the basin is oversubscribed for its limited water.

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choctaw19521 day ago

The government has done enough damage here. Go away. FlagShare LikeReply

Len Reed | lreed@oregonian.com1 day ago

@choctaw1952 Going away -- the government? farms already there? tribes? -- is not an option. Recognizing that the basin cannot support all activities in place is the first step in devising a rational plan forward. The agreements in need of congressional action provide that first step.


bifocal1 day ago

That agreement was hard to come by and should by respected by act of congress.  Walden's intransigence won't make more water for the ranchers.  Nobody benefits from those particular dams anymore. FlagShare LikeReply

Len Reed | lreed@oregonian.com1 day ago

@bifocal The dams are assets held by a private utility wishing for their removal. Their generating output is modest, perhaps half that of a modest wind farm. Their condition is old -- one of them is earthen -- and they U.S. government makes relicensing of them contingent upon fish passage and efficiency upgrades that would cost ratepayers far more than the costs of removal. But the dams symbolize something powerful to many, and their removal is feared as a precedent-setting threat to federal dams, hardly the case and faulty in the logic. Rep. Walden's opposition to dam removal, we are told by his office, is rooted in local opposition to their removal.


Oyvez ismir22 hours ago

@Len Reed | lreed@oregonian.com @bifocal  Well said Mr Red. Dams as symbols rather than value. Some are just not worth the upkeep.  


thesaurusrex1 day ago

This is the kind of mess we get ourselves in when Washington D.C. interferes with local things beyond its Constitutional jurisdiction.  Perhaps it is reasonable to ask D.C. to fix the mess it created, but let's learn the larger lesson as well. FlagShare LikeReply

EaglesPDX1 day ago

Sure...buyout all the farmers that the US setup to farm in the high desert in misguided WPA Depression era jobs project.  US has spent and continues to spend millions subsidizing growing crops in a desert. 

Take down all the dams and levies.  The fish, game and land restoration will provide many more jobs and income via hunting, fishing, recreation, hotel, restaurant industries both directly and indirectly than we get from farming a dry, arid area that was never meant to be farmland and can only be farmed by destroying the once very productive fish and game populations.

There will be thousands of short term (1-5 year) construction jobs in doing all the work, fair payments to existing farmers for land and new jobs and industry after land and watershed are restored.


boomslang22 hours ago

@EaglesPDX If you take out all the dams, salmon will die, rafters will be pissed and Farmers in So Oregon and Norcal will cease to exist.  Property values will drop and both states will have less revenue.  Your plan is perfect! (read sarcasm).

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