Dam removal key to Klamath pact success
Article on the draft Klamath settlement proposal.
A long-awaited agreement among farmers, fishermen, Indian tribes, conservationists and the federal government to manage water in the Klamath Basin and remove four hydroelectric dams received mixed reviews from the people it would affect.
The plan, announced Jan. 15, comes with an estimated $985 million 10-year price tag – which would be paid for with both public and non-governmental funds. That doesn’t include include the cost of removing the dams, which would fall on PacifiCorp, the electric utility that owns and operates them.
PacifiCorp estimates the cost could reach $4 billion, not counting the investment required to replace lost power-generating capacity.
“You don’t just go up there with a sledgehammer,” said Paul Vogel, spokesman for the company, referring to the complexity of dam removal.
The agreement basically boils down to special interest groups asking for money, said Vogel.
Although PacifiCorp initiated the settlement talks as part of the dam re-licensing process, it has been excluded for the past several months, he said.
“It sure can’t be a comprehensive plan for Klamath Basin-wide issues, because the several hundred thousand customers we represent weren’t in the room,” he said. “Our customers should not have to pay for the unreasonable cost of removing these things to further these interests.”
Support for the settlement agreement also isn’t unanimous among agricultural, environmental or tribal interests. Some farmers outside the Klamath Irrigation Project worry the plan doesn’t offer enough protection for agriculture, while some environmental groups believe it leaves fish at the mercy of irrigators.
Despite these misgivings, the groups that drafted the agreement say they’ve all had to make equal concessions.
“It would be hard to argue that we have not staked out a massive amount of common ground,” said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, during a joint telephone press conference with tribes, conservation groups and federal representatives on Jan. 15.
“There’s not a party on this phone call that hasn’t had to compromise,” he said.
When Klamath Irrigation Project farmers entered into the settlement talks 2 1/2 years ago, they had three main goals, including a reliable source of water for irrigation, affordable power for pumping and assurance that growers wouldn’t be negatively affected by Endangered Species Act regulations if salmon returned to previously shut-off habitat, said Luther Horsley, president of the Klamath Water Users Association.
“We believe the agreement achieves those objectives,” he said.
Water diversions limited
Under the agreement, the amount of water diverted for irrigation would be limited per guidelines developed by a “joint powers entity comprised of irrigation districts” known as the Klamath Water and Power Agency, said Steve Kandra, farmer and board member of the Klamath Water Users Association.
Irrigators would receive water according to an “allocation curve” that depends on how much surface water is available overall, Kandra explained.
In times of severe drought, water diversion would be curtailed by roughly 100,000 acre feet, or about 25 percent of irrigators’ total demand in very dry years, he said.
Growers would offset the reduced diversion by conserving water, forgoing irrigation and pumping groundwater, Kandra said.
When water is more abundant, the amount available for irrigation would increase correspondingly with the conditions. However, growers don’t need as much water for irrigation in wet years, he said.
“We’re not going to bring water in just to bring water in,” he said.
Ground pumping statistics
Based on the statistical probability of having a dry versus a wet year, irrigators would only need to pump ground water about 50 percent of the time, rather than every year, as they generally do now, Kandra said.
Also, when the dams are removed or additional storage is built, 10,000 acre feet would be added to the 330,000 acre foot baseline amount that could be diverted for irrigation, he said.
As for compliance with the Endangered Species Act, “we’d still be looking at environmental responsibilities,” Kandra said.
But by abiding by the allocation curve and proceeding in good faith with habitat conservation projects, on-project irrigators would basically be protected from ESA enforcement, he said.
Sticking to standards
As long as on-project irrigators stick to the standards outlined in the settlement agreement, biological opinions issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would categorize irrigation as a “non-jeopardy” to fish, said Kandra.
For off-project irrigators to gain the same level of protection, on the other hand, individuals and groups will need to voluntarily satisfy performance standards, which may include forgoing irrigation and undertaking conservation projects, he said.
Kandra admitted this arrangement is controversial, since some off-project irrigators would question the value of protection compared to the cost of performance standards.
“Individuals will need to control their fates on that issue,” he said. “People are going to have to be making some decisions.”
However, protection from regulation may be offered as an “umbrella” to groups that cooperatively satisfy performance standards, Kandra said.
“You’re certainly hoping watersheds would be working together,” he said. “Some of the things will meld right into activities already taking place.”
Both on-project and off-project irrigators will be able to join the Klamath Water and Power Agency to enjoy stable electricity prices; the agency would reduce rates through renewable energy projects, such as wind turbines and solar panels, Kandra said.
“The money generated by the enterprise will come back as a credit to people who participate in the program,” he said.
The Klamath Off-Project Water Users, one of the negotiators in the settlement, believes that the energy plan is unrealistic, which is one of several reasons the group opposes the overall agreement, said Edward Bartell, farmer and president of the group.
“We think it’s going to absolutely devastate this community,” he said.
The $33 million allocated for renewable energy development in the agreement doesn’t come with any funding assurances, he said. Even if it did, the plan wouldn’t produce enough revenue to contain rates at 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, the prescribed goal, Bartell said.
“It’s off by an order of magnitude to be able to do that,” said Bartell.
The agreement also doesn’t provide any concrete, legal assurances that farmers would actually be protected from ESA enforcement or future irrigation water shut-offs, he said.
“We think it’s just an empty promise in the settlement,” said Bartell. “Everybody seems to have back-pedaled on everything, as far as assurances for agriculture.”
Bartell is also troubled by the settlement’s recognition of tribes’ “time immemorial” water rights.
“We think it’s extremely risky to grant a water right like that,” he said.
The agreement also contains a provision that would have the federal government buy out 30,000 acre feet of water rights from off-project irrigators, he said.
“We see it as a huge threat,” said Bartell.
Two environmental groups that withdrew from the settlement talks, WaterWatch of Oregon and Oregon Wild, also see the agreement as dangerous. From their perspective, though, the settlement bows to pressure from “politically powerful agribusiness interests,” according to Oregon Wild.
The Hoopa Valley tribe, which remained in the talks but does not support the settlement, opposes a provision that would have tribes waive legal claims against the U.S. government if they disagree with the plan’s implementation, said Mike Orcutt, fisheries director for the tribe.
“There’s not enough assurances that fish populations would be protected,” he said.
While the agreement does specify minimal irrigation diversions, it does not set up similar minimum flow levels for fish, said John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch. The solution to environmental issues in the settlement is based on political convenience, not actual science, he said.
“It’s a fantasy to think this agreement is going to solve those problems,” DeVoe said.
The settlement agreement does contain sacrifices that unsettle every party involved in the talks, so it’s easy to “cherry pick” provisions that make entire 256-page document seem unpalatable to any one group, said Kandra.
When taken as a whole, however, the settlement takes everybody’s fundamental interests into account, he said.
“It’s like when people read the Bible. You can take a verse and either take it in or out of context as it relates to the book,” said Kandra. “It makes it a very complex organism… Everybody is going to look at it and interpret it differently.”
Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.