Power, water inextricably linked in Klamath

Power, water inextricably linked in Klamath

By Tam Moore
Capital Press
October 21, 2005


KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – From a system built on gravity flow of water starting in 1905, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project emerged a century later so tied to electricity that farmers predict if a discount electrical power deal goes away, the whole thing will collapse.

“This won’t work with the projected power rates,” Scott Seus, new chairman of the Klamath Water User’s Association power committee, said in a report to the membership last week.

Seus said it’s not just the rates to individual farmers like himself, it’s the cost irrigation and drainage districts pay for the elaborate network of electric pumps that move water around. The existing rates – a half-cent per kilowatt-hour inside project croplands and 0.75 cents per Kwh beyond but inside the larger Klamath Project boundaries – are part of the federal license and a sidebar 50-year contract made with PacifiCorp, the hydro system operator.

The whole package vanishes in April 2006 unless the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decides to again make it part of license renewal terms, or PacifiCorp changes its position. The utility wants to bump rates up to the same agricultural pumping charges paid by similar customers in Northern California and Oregon service areas.

Seus, a second-generation farmer from Tulelake, Calif., told the water users they are paying a lot to keep power rates low. Six consulting lawyers are at work on parts of the deal, including Paul Simmons, the Sacramento lawyer who is primary legal adviser to KWUA.

Tariffs proposed by PacifiCorp, said Seus, would increase power costs as much as 2,500 percent for some classes of project users.

If that happens, he predicted, the federal government’s $75 million investment with farmers in water conservation in the past four years will sit idle. So, he said, would the drainage pumps around which the project was built. It reclaimed over 200,000 acres of former lakebed and wetlands over a 50-year period. Most of the reclaimed land is farmed or part of national wildlife refuges.

“If 100 years (of the project) is a milestone, then power is the cornerstone of our success,” said Seus.

Most irrigators know little more than public statements about how KWUA is doing in the battle to retain “a justifiably low-cost power rate.” That’s because the association and its power committee are part of PacifiCorp’s closed-door negotiations to wrap up Klamath issues in settlement agreements that become part of the FERC license. Parties are sworn to silence until there’s a deal.

PacifiCorp has indicated based on past relicensing experience that those agreements need to be reached a month or two before actual license renewal dates. FERC began formal study of the Klamath renewal application 15 months ago.

Steve Kandra, the grain and hay farmer who serves as KWUA president, told members that directors feel preserving power rates is equally important with assuring there’s a dependable water supply as the project starts its second century.

The PacifiCorp license renewal application proposes distancing the company from BuRec water operations. Under the present contract, the power company operates the dam that creates the main project irrigation diversion, running two generators at the Link River Dam site here. It also operates a regulating dam at Keno, downstream from where project return flows rejoin the river.

The primary electrical power generation comes from a large plant in the Klamath River Canyon near the state line and from turbines installed at three dams in California. All operate primarily with water released by the Klamath Project.

It’s that tie, Seus has argued, that links power rates with water. Elsewhere in the West, BuRec owns the turbines at most projects and sells electricity to reduce project costs. Rural electric cooperatives around projects get discount rates to pass on to irrigators. At Klamath, the first deal put generation with California Oregon Power Co., PacifiCorp’s predecessor, with the FERC contract term delivering a similar benefit.

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