A realistic path forward for the Klamath Basin

A realistic path forward for the Klamath Basin
By Jim McCarthy
Bend Bulletin

December 27, 2015

Parched Lower Klamath NWR, Sept. 20, 2013

Parched Lower Klamath NWR, Sept. 20, 2013

A recent editorial unfortunately repeated the claim that Congressional implementation of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) will largely resolve the Klamath’s longstanding water disputes. In reality, this controversial deal would only exacerbate conflicts in the region because it relies on massive quantities of make-believe water.

Deal supporters say that the bill would have given Klamath Project irrigators tens of billions of gallons more water during recent drought years than they received under the existing federal flow plan. But supporters are vague about how these huge water use increases could be achieved without sparking disaster in a river regularly threatened by fish kills due to low flows.

Those who read the KBRA will see that it creates only 9.8 billion gallons of new water through a water use reduction program confined to the streams above Upper Klamath Lake. This is nowhere near the volume needed to offset the deal’s steep increases in drought year deliveries for project irrigators. This means that compared to the existing flow plan, the KBRA’s water plan would regularly reduce drought year flows from the lake into the Klamath River by tens of billions of gallons.

For example, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Environmental Water Account – the amount of Upper Klamath Lake water reserved each spring to maintain scheduled Klamath River flows under the current flow plan – has been 104.3 billion gallons for both 2014 and 2015. The KBRA’s water plan would have slashed this account by over a third in 2014, and nearly in half in 2015.

Meanwhile, officials admit that the existing flow plan killed more imperiled fish in 2014 than the law allows. This spring, biologists declared a fish kill likely to occur under the plan. And since 2013, tribes and fishermen have annually been forced to fight irrigators in California’s Central Valley to secure emergency Trinity River water to supplement the government’s fish-kill-risking Klamath River flows. But if the KBRA had been in effect in 2014 and 2015, Klamath River flows would have dropped to levels not seen since the catastrophic 2002 fish kill.

Some say the KBRA’s drought plan will overcome the deal’s fish-killing water imbalances. But this plan lacks minimum flows for fish or new tools for countering drought. Instead, the plan creates new preconditions, including large taxpayer funding burdens, which must be met before allowing a select group to vote whether to reduce water deliveries to irrigators. This group excludes conservationists, commercial and recreational fishermen, and a number of basin tribes. The bill would also give $92.5 million from taxpayers to the Klamath Water and Power Agency, an irrigator group currently under federal investigation for alleged misuse of $48 million in taxpayer funds intended to help struggling fish.

The KBRA was never a viable solution. Instead of pointing fingers over its failure, our elected leaders should prioritize the agreement to remove the four lower Klamath River dams. The Klamath Hydropower Settlement Agreement would reopen important salmon spawning habitat and improve water quality. The owner of the dams, PacifiCorp, could make this deal happen without Congress by asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for permission to remove the dams. PacifiCorp took similar action to remove Condit Dam, and funds for the Klamath removals have already been largely secured through a PacifiCorp customer surcharge and California state bond money. Interior Secretary Jewell could also help the Klamath without Congressional action. To stop repeated Klamath waterfowl die-offs due to water scarcity, she should direct the Klamath’s National Wildlife Refuges to use their most senior water rights for refuge habitat, instead of devoting this water to pesticide-intensive commercial crops on refuge lands.

Finally, stakeholders should supplement the basin’s only agreement achieving real water use reduction — the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement — with voluntary water demand reduction in other areas of the basin, including the Klamath Project. Meaningful basin-wide water use reduction must be secured to end the Klamath’s water woes and balance the water budget in the basin.

Jim McCarthy is the communications director for WaterWatch of Oregon. He lives in Ashland.