Stakeholders tout Klamath basin deal

Comprehensive agreement shares burden of water shortage, repairing ecosystem

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

WASHINGTON — The water-sharing deal for the Klamath River Basin under consideration by the U.S. Senate could be a model for other Western states facing water shortages, stakeholders said Tuesday.

After decades of winner-takes-all litigation over competing water rights, the parties have compromised to preserve the way of life of all those who rely on the river and want to see its ecosystem restored, including the Klamath Tribes, ranchers, farmers, professional and recreational fishermen and environmentalists.

John C. Bezdek, a senior adviser to the Interior Department’s deputy secretary, said the Obama administration supports the comprehensive solution for water, fishery and power issues in the Klamath basin, contingent upon additional funding from nonfederal sources. Under the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement, signed by the parties in April, the federal government will pay $505 million over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The parties have realized that “part of something is better than all of nothing,” said Bezdek during Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power.

Nonfederal funding, including $83.4 million from Oregon and California, totals $560 million, said Richard Whitman, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s natural resources policy director.

“The cost of inaction is also significant,” said Bezdek, noting a drought in 2001 meant the Klamath Project, a federal water management program, did not deliver water to all of the farmers and ranchers in its coverage area. The next year, 30,000 adult salmon died in the lower Klamath River. In 2006, severe limitations were imposed on ocean fisheries off the Oregon and California coasts because of decimated stocks in the Klamath Basin.

Last year, drought cut off irrigation deliveries to ranchers in the upper basin, and the Klamath Project reduced its water deliveries in 2010, 2013 and 2014, Bezdek said. Consequently, the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on disaster relief for the area.

“All of these events continue to cast uncertainty and doubt upon the communities of the basin, including the continuation of the way of life of the tribes and the ranching communities and the $600 million a year (that) agricultural products and jobs … contribute to the local economy,” he said.

The Klamath basin is 16,000 square miles that drain into the Klamath River as it flows more than 250 miles from its headwaters in Southern Oregon through Northern California to the Pacific Ocean. In March 2013, after 38 years of litigation, the Oregon Water Resources Department adjudicated the competing claims to the water.

Under the principle of first in time, first in right, the Klamath Tribes were awarded top claim on much of Upper Klamath Lake and portions of its tributaries. But should high-priority rights holders exercise a “call” on their water claim during particularly dry years, ranchers and irrigators worry they wouldn’t have enough water for their livestock and crops.

Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said that although the adjudication affirmed the tribes’ water rights established under a treaty signed in 1864, the tribes realized that without cooperation, the basin will not remain healthy. By balancing water distribution and supporting local economies, the agreement can help restore the entire basin’s ecosystem, he said.

Becky Hyde, a rancher and board member of the Upper Klamath Water Users Association, said the deal is an effort by local parties to forgive wrongs that go back generations, and to move forward together.

“This settlement represents common people, tribal members, farmers, ranchers, government workers, conservationists, philanthropists, scientists and others bringing the best of themselves to this work and living by the golden rule,” she said.

Although the federal government has not signed on to the deal, just having it in place is already helping locals deal with the current dry conditions, said Whitman.

Without it, irrigation would already be shut down in the upper basin and Klamath Project, he said.

“As a result of the agreement, we are seeing a sharing of the shortage of water,” he said. “The Klamath is a wounded basin.”

Last month, Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both D-Ore., along with Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, introduced legislation formalizing the terms of the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement. After Tuesday’s subcommittee hearing, the bill still needs to be approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee before it can receive a floor vote.

Some groups remain skeptical about the agreement’s potential to deal with water shortages.

While water-saving efforts within the deal hope to increase the flow of water into the Upper Klamath Lake by 30,000 acre-feet, other provisions promise an additional 91,000 acre-feet to the Klamath Project and another 41,000 acre-feet for wildlife refuges farther downstream, said Jim McCarthy, a spokesman for WaterWatch of Oregon.

“You’re talking about imaginary water in this deal, yet you’re talking about real taxpayer dollars,” he said. “This just doesn’t provide the water needed to solve the problems in the basin.”

In drought years, flows will be low enough to produce large fish kills, he said.

“That’s not solving the problem. That’s shifting the risk onto the fish,” he said.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com