Opinion: It’s Time to Acknowledge KBRA Isn’t a Solution

Opinion: It’s Time to Acknowledge KBRA Isn’t a Solution

By Jim McCarthy
Two Rivers Tribune

July 28, 2015

Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River

Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River

The Klamath Basin is again suffering another punishing drought year. Locals and coastal fishing communities are again hoping that Klamath salmon won’t suffer more harm from a reckless federal water management plan that has repeatedly risked fish disease outbreaks and kills. Meanwhile, supporters of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) are once again in the media, making vague promises about what their deal’s water plan would do for fish and flows in the Klamath River.

Tribal and coastal communities dependent on Klamath salmon deserve better than vague promises, especially when Klamath Project irrigators know exactly what they are getting from the KBRA. They know that the deal would have given them tens of billions of gallons more water for irrigation in the 2014 and 2015 droughts than they received under the current flow plan. Because the KBRA only creates 9.8 billion gallons of new water through a water use reduction program confined to the streams above Upper Klamath Lake, this means that the KBRA would regularly reduce flows into the Klamath River by tens of billions of gallons in drought years compared to the existing flow plan. To be exact, the KBRA would have increased Project area water withdrawals from Upper Klamath Lake by 48.7 billion gallons in 2014, and 58 billion gallons this year.

For some perspective, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Environmental Water Account — the amount of Upper Klamath Lake water reserved in the spring of each year to maintain 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 37% in 2014, and 46% in 2015.

Meanwhile, federal officials have admitted that the existing flow plan killed more imperiled Klamath fish in 2014 than the law allows. This spring, officials declared a fish kill “likely to occur” under the plan. And since 2013, tribes and fishermen have annually waged a desperate fight against irrigators in California’s Central Valley to secure emergency Trinity River water to bolster the government’s fish-kill-risking Klamath River flows.

This raises the question: If the current flow plan kills fish, why do KBRA supporters expect vastly lower flows will do anything except cause more harm? Indeed, 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 claim 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 financial burdens, which must be met before allowing a select group to vote whether to reduce the KBRA’s water allocation for irrigators. This group excludes conservationists, commercial and recreational fishermen, and a number of Klamath Basin tribes.

WaterWatch supports removing the lower four Klamath dams. This will reopen important salmon spawning habitat and improve water quality in the Klamath River. But it makes no sense to remove dams to increase salmon habitat, then let salmon runs perish for lack of water.

It’s time to end the vague promises. To their credit, some KBRA supporters have acknowledged that the Klamath’s obsolete dams will come out even without their deal. It’s time to acknowledge that the KBRA is not a solution.

The federal government must make a significant investment in the Klamath Basin to restore its invaluable natural resources, meet tribal trust responsibilities, obtain secure water supplies for its salmon runs and wildlife refuges, and make a fair and equitable transition to a sustainable level of farming and fisheries production. WaterWatch urges the basin’s leaders to champion meaningful water use reductions that would bring demand for water basin-wide into balance with supply. Any true solution must include some downsizing of the Klamath Project and the voluntary retirement of other water rights throughout the basin.

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