GUEST VIEWPOINT: ‘Make-believe water’ bill would be disaster for Klamath

GUEST VIEWPOINT: ‘Make-believe water’ bill would be disaster for Klamath
By Jim McCarthy
Eugene Register-Guard

July 11, 2015

2002 Klamath River fish kill.

2002 Klamath River fish kill.

As the Klamath Basin’s drought continues another year, some ­— including both of Oregon’s U.S. senators — continue to claim that controversial legislation long stalled in Congress will solve the basin’s chronic water woes. These claims plainly violate math and common sense.

Worse, implementing the bloated Klamath bill would waste tens of millions in taxpayer dollars on programs that bring little public benefit, while placing Oregon’s coastal communities at extreme risk of catastrophic salmon fishing closures and economic disaster.

Recent reports have repeated the same unsubstantiated claims made again and again by the Klamath bill’s supporters.

They say legislation sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley would have increased water diversions from Upper Klamath Lake by 58 billion gallons this year, despite the fact that the bill would provide only 9.8 billion gallons of additional water through a water use reduction program confined to the lake’s tributaries.

In other words, to solve the Klamath’s drought woes in 2015, Wyden and Merkley promise 9.8 billion gallons of real water and 48.2 billion gallons of make-believe water.

Unfortunately, using make-believe water to justify massive increases in drought-year water use in the Klamath Basin would reduce real-life Klamath River flows by 48.2 billion gallons in a year when scientists have declared a fish kill “likely to occur” under the current flow plan. Klamath water managers have been desperately seeking additional water this year to save parasite-plagued baby salmon this spring and prevent another adult salmon kill this fall.

Reducing 2015 Klamath River flows by the amount proposed under the senators’ bill would drop the river to levels not seen since the massive 2002 Klamath fish kill, which wiped out over 70,000 returning salmon before they could spawn. The legislation’s water budget would have caused similar dramatic flow reductions in previous drought years. This flow regime would quickly devastate salmon populations and tribal fisheries along with Oregon’s commercial and recreational salmon fishing industries.

For some perspective, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s 2015 Environmental Water Account — the amount of Upper Klamath Lake water reserved to maintain Klamath River flows under the current flow plan — is 104.3 billion gallons. The senators’ bill would have slashed this amount by nearly half.

According to the Bureau of Reclamation’s own figures, the Klamath Project’s average supply from 1961 through 2007 — 110.8 billion gallons — is the same as the project’s mandated minimum drought year water supply under the senators’ bill.

This means in a year of record-­breaking drought and likely salmon kills, Wyden and Merkley believe it prudent for irrigators to carry on as if drought and imperiled salmon didn’t exist. Meanwhile, their legislation asks taxpayers for nearly $100 million to help irrigators adjust to their improved water supply.

It is long past time for real leadership in the Klamath — leadership that puts forward solutions to achieve real-world balance in the basin, instead of playing make-believe to appease a few powerful interests at the expense of fish, wildlife, taxpayers and the many communities dependent upon the Klamath’s invaluable resources.

WaterWatch of Oregon stands ready to work with Oregon’s leaders toward real solutions to the region’s water issues and removal of the four lower mainstem Klamath River dams. Any realistic solution must include some downsizing of the Klamath Project and a basinwide water use reduction program that brings demand for water into balance with actual supplies.

Jim McCarthy is Communications Director and Southern Oregon Program Manager for WaterWatch of Oregon.