PNP comment: Destruction of the four hydro-electric Klamath dams and the resulting affect it would have on water rights in Oregon and California should have never been part of the KBRA. The Counties of Siskiyou and Oregon in a Bi-state Alliance asked that Klamath dam removal be taken out of the KBRA, but the stakeholders would have nothing to do with it. Demolition of Klamath dams will set a precedent that Congress was not willing to do and, more importantly, had nothing to do with irrigation in the Klamath Project as they store their water as part of the “reclamation” project. Please understand that the KBRA could have moved forward, but Klamath dam removal should not have been part of the agreement. It is environmentally ludicrous to take out the Klamath dams. The dams provide needed flood control, summer water flow sustainability for fish; and grow millions of salmon through the Irongate Fish Hatchery. — Editor Liz Bowen
on December 19, 2015 at 10:00 AM, updated December 19, 2015 at 10:02 AM
For years, the Klamath Basin water agreement was a feel-good story about racial reconciliation, environmental recovery and the power of working together.
It was an uplifting sequel to the huge protests by farmers during an irrigation shutoff in 2001 and the death of thousands of salmon in the overheated waters of the Klamath River a year later.
After years of negotiation, ranchers, farmers and tribes in the Klamath Basin on the border of Oregon and California reached a water-sharing agreement that included the bold step of removing four aged dams on the Klamath River to restore the health of one of the West’s main salmon-producing waterways.
It became clear this week, however, that there won’t be any storybook ending, at least that anyone can see now.
Congress once again failed to pass legislation implementing the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and its associated pacts. The agreement is set to expire Jan. 1, and nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen next.
“We collectively as a society missed an opportunity here, and I don’t think we’ll have it again,” said Greg Addington of the Klamath Water Users Association, one of the main players in the saga. “What it means for us in a nutshell is more continued uncertainty.”
The inspiring tale that attracted so much attention masked the fact that not everyone was singing Kumbaya. The agreement never sold well either in solidly Republican Klamath County or on the California side of the border, where the idea of removing dams and tilting the scale toward environmental and tribal purposes was regarded suspiciously.
“They try to say the community is for it, and it’s not true at all,” said Klamath County Chairman Tom Mallams, noting that almost all successful candidates in the area run against the agreement.
Legislation implementing the basin agreement has languished in Congress in the years since Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger staged a celebratory signing in Oregon’s Capitol in 2010.
Among western Republicans, the idea of removing the dams has been viewed with great suspicion, even though the aged structures are relatively small hydroelectric producers, aren’t used for irrigation and have major fish-passage problems. PacifiCorp, which owns the dams, has agreed to remove them instead of going through the uncertainty and huge expense of relicensing them.
But congressional critics have long fretted that it could create a precedent for fulfilling environmentalist fantasies for widespread dam removal in the West.
Republican Rep. Greg Walden, who represents the Oregon side of the basin, kept a careful distance from the agreement, particularly when it came to dam removal. In the last year, he softened his rhetoric about removing dams and has been negotiating with Oregon’s two senators, Democrats Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, on legislation to move the agreement forward.
But those talks came to an end two weeks ago after Walden unveiled a legislative draft that left out dam removal and called for turning over 100,000 acres of federal land to Klamath County and to California’s Siskiyou County.
Walden, suggesting that the dams could potentially be taken out through the regulatory process, said he was trying to figure out a creative way to build support for the agreement among his fellow Republicans.
In the short run, Walden’s proposal appeared to drive away Wyden and Merkley. They said the idea of turning federal forests over to the counties was a nonstarter in the Senate. The omnibus spending bill — once seen as a potential vehicle for Klamath Basin language – passed Friday, and Congress went home for holidays.
“We’re going to continue to work to find a solution that works for the people in the basin and that can be passed in the House and signed into law,” said Walden spokesman Andrew Malcolm. “We’re looking for a viable resolution.”
The senators released their own statement Friday, saying they hope they can make progress when Congress returns next month – but it’s clear they expect Walden to drop his more controversial ideas if anything is going to happen.
“We are hopeful that a path forward can still be found,” the senators said, “if there is an immediate commitment to put aside unnecessary and unrelated policy disputes and instead work toward legislative action first thing in January on an earnest attempt to implement the locally developed agreements.”
The path is getting rockier. One of the three tribes that signed the agreement – the Yuroks in California – have backed away from it, and Addington said some of the groups on the farm side are starting to peel away as well.
A PacifiCorp official told the Capitol Press, an agricultural newspaper, that the company will now seek to relicense its dams. Conversely, WaterWatch, a Portland-based environmental group that never supported the agreement, argues the dams can’t be brought up to modern standards and that it hopes to force their removal through the federal regulatory process.
Meanwhile, Addington said irrigators will probably have to unleash their lawyers to go into court to fight the Klamath Tribes over water rights in the upper basin. The tribes won a 2013 ruling that they hold the superior water rights, but there are still avenues for appeal.
Don Gentry, the Klamath tribal chairman, agreed that more litigation looms.
“We’re going to be basically back in court with one another,” Gentry said, “and that’s a difficult thing. But we have to represent our interests as best we can.”
Gentry noted that many of his tribal members are feeling restless. While they’ve lived within the terms of the agreement for five years, “we haven’t gotten any closer to all the things we want.”
The various signatories to the agreement are planning a conference call Dec. 28 to talk over what might happen next. Addington and Gentry say they hope the good will the signatories have built up over the years while help them continue to negotiate.
One thing everyone hopes for is a good water year to help smooth over conflicts.
In the meantime, Gentry said, supporters of the Klamath agreement are feeling shell-shocked.
“As one person said today,” he explained in a telephone interview, “we’re still going through the stages of grief.”
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