Discord threatens Klamath River water talks

Discord threatens Klamath River water talks

Article in the Sacramento Bee on Klamath River water talks.

By David Whitney
Sacramento Bee
August 12, 2007


WASHINGTON — When the House Natural Resources Committee met in July to discuss whether Vice President Dick Cheney had improperly interfered in the battle over Klamath River water, Republicans complained that the hearing could derail negotiations to settle the heated farming vs. fish fight.

“Let’s do what’s best for the fish, farmers, the tribes and the fishermen,” Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., pleaded, with fellow GOP Reps. John Doolittle of Roseville and Wally Herger of Marysville sitting in solidarity with him at the witness table. “Let’s encourage them to find common ground, not rub salt in old wounds when they are so close to an historic agreement of enormous significance.”

But as the projected November deadline for a deal moves steadily nearer, environmental and Indian tribal leaders are raising concerns that the pact that everyone so desperately wants is in danger of slipping away because of what they see as political manipulation.

“Whatever comes out of these negotiations has to have a scientific basis, rather than a political basis,” said Clifford Lyle Marshall, Hoopa Valley Tribe chairman. “There were political strings being pulled before the negotiations started — and they are still in play.”

Critics warn that the evolving 60-year agreement is being shaped by Bush administration officials and is looking more and more like a $250 million-plus gift to irrigators, assuring them of ample water and subsidized power to pump it in exchange for a huge but possibly elusive environmental victory — knocking down four dams on the river.

The hydroelectric dams are owned by Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp, which is no longer involved in the talks.

“PacifiCorp hasn’t committed to anything,” said Steve Pedery, spokesman and conservation director for Oregon Wild, an environmental group now excluded from the talks because it wouldn’t sign on to a binding 23-page “settlement framework” in January.

“The framework is what we had to agree to in order to get a seat at the table with PacifiCorp,” Pedery said.

Greg Addington, director of the Klamath Water Users Association and a strong advocate of a negotiated settlement, said he was disappointed that critics are beginning to go public before a deal is done. “I’d hope that we could work these things out amongst ourselves and not in the media,” he said. But he added that even among irrigators there are “big concerns,” despite assurances of water and subsidized power.

“The certainty to irrigators is a value to us,” he said. “But it comes at a cost to us. It is not all roses for us. The settlement, if implemented as it is today, will be painful for us.”

Alex Pitts, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official, declined comment, other than to say the talks are not being directed by the administration.

Some 26 groups are involved in the secret talks, including representatives of state and federal agencies, local governments, Indian tribes, environmental groups, irrigators and fishing organizations. Participants have signed confidentiality pledges.

The fight over Klamath water is a textbook example of a conflict so complex and long-standing that the best promise for success is a negotiated settlement.

Farmers rely on the same water for irrigation that fishermen and Indian tribes need for the health of fish, and in many years there is too little of it.

Complicating the tensions are federal laws protecting endangered fish and nearly a century of federal policies that drained once-rich wetlands for migratory birds and converted them into irrigation-dependent farmland for homesteaders.

The problems came to a head in 2001 when outraged farmers had their water supply turned off during a prolonged drought to save water for salmon runs.

The tables turned in 2002 when water was restored to farmers while reduced downriver flows of sun-heated water created ideal conditions for the spread of a pathogen that killed an estimated 70,000 salmon.

That massive die-off, the worst in U.S. history, led to a fishery disaster in 2005 and 2006 as commercial fleets along 700 miles of the Pacific Coast were idled to protect the diminished Klamath River run.

Settlement talks began in 2005, about the time PacifiCorp applied to relicense its dams for up to 50 years. Environmentalists want the dams removed to reopen the upper Klamath to salmon.

Several participants said hopes for a balanced agreement began to fade last fall and accelerated with the settlement group’s release of the January framework. Among its many principles, the details of which are now being negotiated, is a pledge to increase minimum water supplies for irrigators, and protect farming operations on the 39,000-acre Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, where costly pumping drains rich lake-bottom lands for farming.

Environmentalists long have opposed refuge farming, saying places like Tule Lake should be allowed to return to their natural wetlands state. “This was a deal-killer for us,” said Pedery of Oregon Wild. “This is an effort by the Bush administration to lock in agriculture in the refuge.”

Felice Pace of the Klamath Forest Alliance said the deal is looking more and more like a bargain with the devil — the promise of dam removals in exchange for binding water rights for farmers. Also troubling is the decision to virtually exclude California’s Scott and Shasta rivers from the talks even though irrigation demands on them affect 35 percent of the water flowing down the Klamath River, Pace said.

“When and if this settlement happens, the governors of Oregon and California will be there to declare the water wars are over and the Klamath is fixed,” Pace said. “But what commitments are the states making? I’ll be there to protest if the Scott and Shasta rivers are on their current trajectory with no commitments to stop their dewatering.”

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