Senators put pork before Klamath Basin water

Senators put pork before Klamath Basin water
By Jim McCarthy
For The Register-Guard

February 27, 2016

Parched Lower Klamath NWR, Sept. 20, 2013

Parched Lower Klamath NWR, Sept. 20, 2013

Most Oregonians expect our elected leaders to support more ­water conservation efforts in the drought-prone Klamath River Basin. They don’t ­expect them to prop up excessive water use at the expense of taxpayers, wildlife, salmon and coastal fishing communities. Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden apparently disagree: They recently proposed a subsidy-laden rider to the Senate energy bill that would effectively turn back the clock on Klamath water conservation to 1956.

The Merkley-Wyden rider includes a number of taxpayer-funded sweetheart deals to dramatically reduce water pumping costs for irrigators in a basin plagued by runaway water use.

This isn’t the first time Klamath agribusiness has tried grabbing an unfair competitive advantage. They did it in 1956, when they wrangled a pumping subsidy that would eventually provide them a $10 million leg up on the competition each year and become a major ­contributing factor in the basin’s water crisis.

A decade ago, WaterWatch, Oregon Wild and our allies in the commercial salmon fishing industry helped overturn this exclusive subsidy and normalized pumping costs to encourage water conservation in the Klamath Basin.

Now, if this latest well-­hidden special interest giveaway succeeds, it would overturn the biggest Klamath water conservation gains since the basin’s conflict over natural resources first hit national headlines.

One example of the progress this rider undermines: Before power cost normalization, the Klamath Project’s biggest pump — which drains excess wastewater collected at the sprawling federal irrigation project’s lower end — drained some 29.3 billion gallons each year. Since power cost normal­ization, irrigators have an ­incentive to avoid inefficiencies that would increase pumping costs. The project’s biggest pump now drains around 6.5 billion gallons of wastewater per year.

That’s 22.8 billion gallons of water conserved — more than double the water conservation proposed in the failed $1 billion Klamath water agreements — all achieved at zero taxpayer cost. Why throw away this win-win for fiscal responsibility and the environment?

Unfortunately, it gets worse. The rider authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to provide $92.5 million for an irrigator-­authored water use plan for the Klamath Project. This plan doesn’t require irrigators to conserve water, or to return a single drop to the Klamath River. A major concern is that much of this money would be spent to expand unsustainable groundwater pumping in a basin already suffering from dramatic groundwater depletion. The fact that the intended recipient of these funds — the Klamath Water and Power Agency — is under federal investigation for alleged misuse of $48 million previously provided to benefit struggling fish populations shows uncharacteristic disregard on the part of Merkley and Wyden.

Our senators need to understand that it’s time to move forward, not back, to solve the Klamath’s longstanding water woes. Balancing the Klamath’s water budget will require building on — not abandoning — water conservation gains. Any realistic Klamath solution must also include basin-wide, voluntary water use reduction, including some downsizing of the Klamath Project and the permanent retirement of other water rights throughout the basin.

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