Senate Committee Hearing: Power rates may drop for irrigators

Senate Committee Hearing: Power rates may drop for irrigators

By Devan Schwartz
Klamath Falls Herald & News

June 21, 2013

Solving water crises in the Klamath Basin may need more time, more inclusion and a lower price tag.

“Everyone in the Klamath Basin has the right to deserve better,” U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in a Washington, D.C., hearing Thursday.

Joining him were fellow Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and 17 expert witnesses on Klamath Basin water resource issues. They addressed drought, water shutoffs, high power rates, degraded fish habitat, poor water quality and historically dry wildlife refuges.

Wyden focused on making Klamath Basin settlement agreements more affordable and seeking common ground among proponents and detractors. As chairman of the committee, Wyden said no one will get all they want, although everyone could get what they need — a legislative solution able to pass budget-conscious Congress, and bring all the stakeholders together.

“I think there are people around this table and throughout the Basin who understand this has gone on long enough,” the senator argued. No definite actions were taken, though everyone agreed that something needs to be done — and soon.

Greg Addington has been a leading voice on the settlement agreements as executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

“I thought the hearing went well and I thought (Wyden) did a good job,” Addington said. “Overall, the big issue is he wants to do something on this.”

Cost concerns

At Thursday’s hearing, Wyden prioritized lowering the price for regional settlement agreements.

“We are looking today for constructive approaches and fresh ideas to build on the good work that has been done in the past and to move ahead and to recognize the fiscal realities Congress and our nation are facing,” Wyden said.

“The (Klamath Basin Restoration Agreements) and what essentially has been agreed to at this point is simply unaffordable in the current federal budget environment … there’s got to be a way to accomplish the agreements’ objectives with a lower price tag.”

Dean Brockbank, vice president and general counsel for PacifiCorp, said he expected the $1 billion federal cost to be lowered to $800 million, a 20 percent cut.

Another uncertainty was the funding stream from the State of California. Yet John Laird, of the California Natural Resources Agency, made a commitment to provide the funds. The first option is passing a bond in 2014 or 2016.

“If the bond doesn’t pass, we’re good for it,” Laird said, citing a statewide budget shortfall that has turned into a surplus under Gov. Jerry Brown.

No immediate price point was announced by Wyden, nor a new number reached by the witnesses.

Wyden noted how the Secure Rural Schools program, providing public safety and infrastructure support to more than 40 states, costs half of the proposed settlement agreements.

Yet Addington pointed out how $500 million has already been authorized, and the remaining costs will be spread out over a number of years. Nevertheless, he said costs will remain an important topic in posthearing meetings — and in the process of advancing eventual legislation.

Upper Basin remains divided

Irrigators from the upper Klamath Basin are experiencing water shutoffs related to newly enforceable water rights law. Yet witnesses from the upper Basin presented differing viewpoints at Thursday’s hearing.

Becky Hyde is a rancher and represents the Upper Klamath Water Users Association, a group of irrigators who support the settlement agreements.

“Unfortunately the Klamath Basin is known for its water crisis and not for the healthy food the hard-working families grow,” said Hyde in her testimony. Her family’s water was among those recently shut off and she described deep regional impacts to the Klamath Basin’s agricultural economy, estimated at $550 million annually.

Opponents of the present settlement agreements included upper Basin irrigators Roger Nicholson, who represents the Fort Klamath Critical Habitat Landowners, and county commissioner Tom Mallams.

Nicholson said they seek guaranteed water supplies similar to those Klamath Project farmers receive under the agreements. “In order to avoid an economic catastrophe, the upper Klamath Basin needs water assurances.”

Mallams added that recent elections show a lack of county-wide support for proposed dam removal and the current settlement agreements. Nonetheless, the commissioner described the settlement process as a noble cause and one worth continuing with a wider set of options.

“We need to get together and continue this dialogue — and make sure this agreement really does happen,” Mallams said.

Asked about additional upper Basin irrigators joining the settlement agreements, Addington said he was hopeful. “The door’s wide open for them and I hope they can find their way through it. We’re certainly going to be willing to talk to them and listen to the concerns they have.”

Lowering power rates

In his opening statements, Wyden touted work to lower power rates for local farmers and ranchers. Initially it will be for Klamath Project irrigators, but Wyden said he hopes to extend the lower rate to off-Project users.

“Our family farmers need affordable power to stay afloat. I have been working over the last few weeks with Pacifi-Corp, Bonneville Power Administration and the Interior Department to address this issue, and can announce today that on-Project users will soon see a real reduction in their power rates,” Wyden said. “All of us agree that we need rate relief for all our farmers. My own sense is this will require legislation, but there may be other ways to provide power rate relief for off-Project users.”

“It’s not really new. We’ve been working on it for a long time,” Addington said just after the hearing concluded.

It isn’t new because getting lower power rates is part of the settlement agreements.

“There already is in the settlement agreement a provision that says we will work with BPA and others to facilitate the delivery of federal power to irrigators as a way to try to get lower cost power for irrigators,” said Bob Gravely, spokesman for PacifiCorp.

Project irrigators would get the federal rate first because they operate on a federal project. What may require more work, and likely legislation, is getting that power rate for off-Project irrigators.

Dean Brockbank, vice president and general counsel for PacifiCorp, gave written testimony stating that his company is “bound by statutes and regulations that do not permit special contracts, cost shifts between different classes of customers and other restrictions regarding costs we are allowed to charge customers without the approval of our regulatory commissions.”

Tribes speak before Congress

Tribal representatives speaking at Thursday’s hearing called for improved conditions for salmon and short-nosed sucker.

The Klamaths, Karuks and Yuroks support Basin-wide settlement agreements. The Hoopa Tribe opposes them. All parties expressed support for removing four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River.

Klamath tribal chairman Don Gentry defended the Tribes’ recent call for water, which has led to irrigation shutoffs in the upper Basin.

“This supports our rights to hunt, fish, trap and gather,” Gentry said before the committee.

The tribal chairman added that treaty resources are central to exercising their cultural and spiritual practices.

“Decades of failed state and federal policies have over-promised water across a diverse set of groups in the Basin,” Gentry said.

“After years of contentious litigation, many in the Basin realized that a collaborative approach was necessary. Our negotiations led to the delicate balance of needs and compromise within the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.”

Wildlife refuges addressed

Among the many water crises facing the Klamath Basin are wildlife refuges with historic drought levels.

Often last in line for limited water, the refuges nevertheless provide important habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife. They are situated in the Pacific Flyway, an important route for migratory birds.

Jim McCarthy is communications director for WaterWatch of Oregon. He said the government has promised too much water to too many interests, and the wildlife refuges suffer.

Due to insufficient water, McCarthy said 20,000 waterfowl died in 2012.

Refuge complex manager Ron Cole has said Lower Klamath Refuge, for this time of year, is the driest it’s been since the 1940s.

McCarthy recommended the refuges be used for water storage — a function they served prior to large-scale irrigation and alterations to the area’s natural hydrology.

An opponent of the settlement agreements, McCarthy also requested a Basin-wide voluntary water reduction program and a curtailing of commercial agriculture on the refuges.