After more than a decade of negotiations with a variety of stakeholders, the end-of-year deadline for the U.S. Congress to pass legislation approving and funding the Klamath Basin settlement agreements is expected to come and go without final action, leaving the future of the basin’s water supply uncertain.
“The agreements as we know them will expire,” said Greg Addington, a consultant to the Klamath Water Users Association and its former executive director, who noted the agreements had been agreed upon by Klamath Water Project farmers, environmental groups, local tribes and other parties.
“There will be a willingness from us and other parties to sit down and see if we can do anything as a plan B,” Addington said.
Representing about 1,200 family farmers who rely on water supplies from Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River, the Klamath Water Users Association spent five years negotiating a plan to increase stability for tribal, agricultural and fishing communities. After water was cut off to Klamath Project irrigators in 2001 to help fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act, Addington said, the association was directed to seek an agreement among various interests.
“Post-2001, the clear message from Washington, D.C., and elected officials was: ‘You have to get together with other stakeholders and solve this problem; we can’t solve it for you.’ And we did it. We solved the problem. We did what people asked us to do and it wasn’t good enough. That is hard; that is frustrating,” Addington said.
In 2010, the stakeholders finalized a plan that would guarantee water supply certainty to irrigate crops and restore salmon runs. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement aimed to establish sustainable water supplies and power rates for irrigators, restore fish habitat and help the Klamath tribes; the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement called for removing all or part of four PacifiCorp-owned hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River.
Under the settlement, Klamath Project farmers agreed to withdraw their contests against tribal water rights claims. In exchange, the Klamath tribes agreed not to interfere with project water use at levels set in the proposed restoration agreement. In 2013, a third agreement was reached that included off-project ranchers above Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon.
On the legislative front, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced S.2379, the “Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act,” in 2013, authorizing the two previously negotiated agreements and incorporating the third agreement.
In early December, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., released draft legislation to address Klamath issues other than removal of dams, such as implementing water-sharing agreements and the transfer of federal lands and economic development funds to the Klamath tribes in exchange for waiving senior water rights.
Removal of the dams does not sit well with the Klamath Basin’s farming neighbors to the west along the Scott and Shasta rivers.
Brandon Fawaz, president of the Siskiyou County Farm Bureau, said the county Farm Bureau has officially opposed dam removal.
“We are not against the Klamath Water Users Association at all trying to get water for farmers. We’re farmers; we understand that. We try to get water for our farms. Our issue is since we were never part of the negotiations, there are some parts of the agreements as currently written that, in certain situations, could allow for water shortages to be covered with water from other parts of Siskiyou County, mainly the Shasta and Scott valleys,” Fawaz said.
“We welcome the opportunity to be involved in any process moving forward trying to settle those issues,” Fawaz added. “We recognize our role is a small role, but it is an important one that we are part of that and we make sure that Scott and Shasta water is not used to cover any shortcomings.”
Tribal leaders have made dam removal a condition for their participation in the agreements, and Modoc County Farm Bureau President Ben DuVal said dam removal was a condition Klamath irrigators had to accept in coming together with such a diverse group of stakeholders.
Looking ahead to next season, DuVal said, “It means we’re back to where we were 10 years ago. Even a mild drought could mean some of the other interests litigating against the project.”
The agreements expired previously in 2012, Addington said, and at that time the 40-plus stakeholders had to agree to amend and extend the agreement for two additional years. Now, stakeholders are starting to withdraw their support for the agreements. The Yurok Tribe has already withdrawn.
“People are saying, ‘We’ve tried it your way for years. We’ve negotiated; we’ve got nothing,'” Addington said. “The people who were at the table who have advocated for collaboration and some compromise are out of traction.”
Despite the likely expiration of the agreements, Addington said that by being engaged in the process for the past 10 years, the Klamath Water Users Association avoided litigation affecting project farmers’ water supplies, and noted that, with the agreements in place, federal money was invested in the basin to pump groundwater or idle land in response to water shortages.
“In three out of the last four years, the hydrology was worse than in 2001 when the water was completely shut off, and we figured out how to get everybody to irrigate. I’m really proud of those things and that was not just by chance. That was because of the work in these agreements,” Addington said. “Anything less than a full supply this next year is going to be a lot more pain than we’ve seen in the past, I’m afraid.”
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)
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