Senator: Price tag too high on Klamath Basin deals

Senator: Price tag too high on Klamath Basin deals

By Tim Fought
The Associated Press

June 21, 2013

Lower Klamath NWR by Brett Cole

Parched canal in the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

PORTLAND, Ore. — Drought has again brought the water struggles of the high-desert Klamath Basin to national attention, but an Oregon senator says Congress won’t pony up the dollars many in the region sought to help reduce tensions and economic damage during dry spells.

The price tag for the settlements reached after irrigation was curtailed during a tense summer in 2001 is “simply unaffordable” given the budget constraints Congress faces, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden said.

Wyden, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, held a hearing Thursday aimed at reducing the cost of an agreement to restore tribal fisheries and guarantee water for irrigators, and to resolve issues that remain divisive in the basin.

“We can figure this out,” Wyden told representatives of the array of interest groups in the region of Southern Oregon and Northern California that suffers recurrent drought.

The commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Mike Connor, told Wyden at the hearing that the costs of federal actions such as improving habitat for threatened fish were initially estimated at $1 billion but later reduced to $800 million.

He said Thursday he believed that $250 million could be shaved off that.

Wyden called the estimate encouraging and suggested a cut of a quarter or a third more to win support in Congress. “The political consensus and the costs go hand in hand,” he said.

Other encouraging signs, Wyden said, are the promise of lower electricity rates for irrigators, assurances from California officials the state would meet its commitments in the agreements, and suggestions there was room for bargaining over water quality and irrigation supplies in the upper part of the Klamath Basin.

This spring, Oregon officials started notifying ranchers who irrigate pastures and hay farmers in the upper Klamath Basin of an irrigation shut-off as the state enforces newly recognized water rights held by the Klamath Tribes.

The shut-off echoes the events of 2001 when farmers confronted federal marshals at an irrigation supply facility known as the headgates.

Negotiations after that led to two agreements: One dealt with water, fish and farming, the other with removing four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River to allow salmon to return to the upper basin for the first time in a century.

Legislation to put the agreements into effect was introduced in the last congressional session but went nowhere. None has been introduced in the current session. The price tag and the idea of taking down Klamath River dams have been a hard sell, particularly in the House.

“We are looking for new ideas and fresh approaches,” Wyden said.

The agreements brought together dozens of interests and groups. Some had been combatants in 2001, such as the Klamath Tribes and irrigators on the federal Klamath Reclamation Project straddling the Oregon-California border.

But approval of the agreements was by no means unanimous. Many environmentalists said the deals would parch wildlife refuges, and several groups said Thursday that wetlands in two refuges could go dry in 2013 even as land leased to farmers gets irrigation water.

Among four tribal groups at Thursday’s hearing, California’s Hoopa Valley Tribe said the agreements would satisfy Oregon demand for water at the expense of California, damaging salmon runs. Thousands of fish died in a 2002 Klamath River kill blamed on poor water conditions.

A group that remains sharply divided on whether to embrace the agreements consists of the ranchers and farmers of the upper basin.

They are not part of the federal project and had water in 2001. But the completion this year of the state-level legal process to sort out water rights in the basin reverses the circumstances of a dozen years ago. Project irrigators are expected to get water this year, while the upper basin irrigators go without.