Klamath Basin proposal is bad for taxpayers: Guest opinion

Klamath Basin proposal is bad for taxpayers: Guest opinion
By Jim McCarthy

December 6, 2014

The Klamath River Basin and its communities need a sustainable plan to address longstanding conflicts over water. Unfortunately, the controversial and expensive Klamath agreements – currently before Congress – will not resolve these conflicts.

These co-joined agreements include hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded giveaways to Klamath River dam owner PacifiCorp and irrigators in the federal Klamath Project. The itemized budgets contained in the water sharing agreements alone – totaling nearly $1 billion – belie the recent public claims of newly reduced costs for taxpayers. These cost reduction claims rely on accounting gimmicks but leave state and federal taxpayers firmly on the hook for a water plan that leaves salmon runs and fishing communities at significant risk.

Since a landmark court order in 2006, Oregon has seen the benefits of science-based Klamath River flow management with rebounding salmon stocks and revitalized commercial and recreational fishing industries. Why, then, do these agreements ignore the best available science on flow needs for salmon?

During the recent drought years of 2010 and 2014, the deals would have greatly increased water diversions to the Klamath Project area and dropped Klamath River flows below the levels seen leading up to the disastrous 2002 fish kill. Ignoring science and history, these agreements do not even guarantee flows at 2002 fish kill levels. Under the proposed legislation, preventing repeated Klamath fish kills during drought would require expensive short-term water-leasing and unsustainable groundwater pumping. Funding for this activity would come on top of the deal’s already massive price tag.

The legislation also provides unfair advantages to Klamath irrigators at taxpayer expense. Despite what Klamath irrigators say, they now pay energy prices for pumping water similar to what their farming neighbors pay in nearby valleys. By law, similar customers of any regulated electrical utility must pay similar rates. However, until recently, Klamath irrigators enjoyed heavily subsidized power rates provided by billing other PacifiCorp customers an additional $10 million per year. That sweetheart deal expired, and reviving it would violate current law. Unfortunately, the Klamath agreements seek to reverse this progress by introducing new subsidies, which will undermine water use efficiency gains made under existing power prices.

WaterWatch supports removing the obsolete Klamath River dams. The cheapest and most direct path to this goal requires restarting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process for these facilities. The Klamath agreements have blocked this process for years, notwithstanding multiple analyses showing that removal and building equivalent generation capacity elsewhere would cost PacifiCorp customers less than retrofitting and operating these outdated dams to meet modern standards. Klamath dam removal supporters should look to PacifiCorp’s Condit Dam removal — done without costly federal legislation — as a model.

It’s clear that the current legislation is not a sustainable path forward for Klamath communities. Any long-term solution on water will require science-based flow assurances for fish, measurable salmon and steelhead restoration standards, some meaningful downsizing of the Klamath Project, and the voluntary retirement of other water rights in the basin. It’s time to recognize that a durable solution in the Klamath must include these elements.

Jim McCarthy is the communication director of WaterWatch of Oregon. He represented WaterWatch as a member of the Klamath Basin Task Force and has testified before Congress regarding Klamath Basin water issues.