Yurok Tribe pulls out of Klamath River agreement

Yurok Tribe pulls out of Klamath River agreement
By Adam Spencer
The Triplicate

September 17, 2015

The Williamson River runs through the Fremont-Winema National Forest in the Upper Klamath Basin.

The Williamson River, tributary to Upper Klamath Lake, running through the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

The historic agreement designed to end long-standing water wars between fish advocates and farmers throughout the 16,000-square-mile Klamath River Basin appears to be facing collapse.

On Tuesday, the Yurok Tribe — one of three key Klamath River Indian tribes that have signed onto the consensus — announced it will be withdrawing from the Klamath Agreements, which have not been able to get the U.S. congressional approval needed for implementation.

“Unfortunately, Congress has failed to pass legislation authorizing the agreements, and over time the bargained-for benefits of the agreements have become unachievable. The Tribe is left with no choice other than to withdraw from the Klamath Agreements,” states the Yurok Tribe’s Notice of Withdrawal.

The Karuk Tribe and the Klamath Tribes of Oregon will also pull out from the deal if the agreements continue to languish in Congress, according to Craig Trucker, Klamath Coordinator for the Karuk Tribe. Calls to the Klamath Tribes were not returned Wednesday.

The Klamath Agreements refer to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and the politically connected Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), which together would remove four aging hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River and invest hundreds of millions of dollars for salmon restoration into the basin while securing guaranteed water flows for farmers in the basin.

Since 2014, the Klamath Agreements have also been connected to the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement, which was negotiated between the Klamath Tribes of Oregon — a single tribal government representing three tribal peoples — and irrigators. The agreement guaranteed 30,000 acre feet of in-flows to Upper Klamath Lake benefitting endangered sucker fish in the lake and downstream users as well as an economic development plan for Klamath Tribes that would create a timber industry for the tribe.

That agreement was sought to bring stability to farmers and ranchers of the Upper Klamath after the Klamath Tribes won the most senior water rights above Upper Klamath Lake in March 2013.

In June 2013, Klamath Tribes exercised their newly-awarded rights by making a call for water they are allocated, which during a drought year, meant less or no water for junior water rights holders.

Although the 2014 agreement was heralded by Oregon’s governor and U.S. senators as a historic compromise to heal the river basin and the people that rely on it, the Yurok Tribe was left out of negotiations — despite promises to the contrary — causing a bitter rift.

“The Upper Klamath Basin parties during negotiations of the KBRA had assured the Yurok Tribe that they would address how the Tribe would be involved in governance and technical forums in the Upper Klamath Basin. The Tribe reminded various parties of this and requested to be involved in the Upper Klamath Basin negotiations,” the Yurok Tribe’s notice states. “The Tribe was not invited to participate in the negotiation of this agreement. This represented a return to the old Oregon-California/Upper Klamath-Lower Klamath division of the Klamath River system rather than the comprehensive approach taken by the Klamath Agreements.”

The Yurok Tribe did not respond to request for comment regarding the notice of withdrawal.

U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, a longtime supporter of the Klamath Agreements, issued a statement saying he still believes that the accord is the “best way forward” but that his patience is also wearing thin.

“While I am disappointed by the Yurok Tribe’s change of heart on the Klamath agreements, I share their frustration with the lack of action in Congress over the past three years,” Huffman’s statement said. “This historic consensus effort to remove Klamath River dams and restore one of the most important salmon rivers on the West Coast is premised on congressional authorization, and as years tick by with little action by Congress the obvious risk is that the stakeholder consensus starts to unravel.”

Other parties closely involved with the Klamath Basin and its water struggles believe the Klamath Agreements’ days are done.

“We consider these to be zombie agreements. They don’t have a chance at life. They just keep trucking along because the most powerful interests — Pacificorp and the irrigators — really want them to pass, but they don’t really work,” said Jim McCarthy, communications director and southern Oregon program manager for WaterWatch.

WaterWatch is a conservation group that was party to the Klamath Agreements negotiations until being “involuntarily expelled,” along with Oregon Wild, for disagreeing with the deal’s mandate of commercial farming in the National Wildlife Refuges of the Upper Klamath, according to WaterWatch.

“These agreements don’t work because they’re based on make-believe water and won’t provide the flows that salmon need. They don’t solve the fundamental problem of over-appropriation in the basin. We need basinwide water-use reduction,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy said that WaterWatch believes the four PacifiCorp owned dams on the Klamath will be removed without legislation and hundreds of million in taxpayer funds because it’s the most economically feasible option for the power company, which would be required to install a costly fish ladder to continue operation of the dams otherwise.

The hope of the Klamath Agreements passing has actually prevented the relicensing process that would likely end in dam removal from moving forward, McCarthy said. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has been allowing the dams to continue operation on temporary annual operating licenses since 2006, when the long-term licenses expired and negotiations for the Klamath Agreements first began.

PacifiCorp, which operates as Pacific Power in Oregon and California, has already collected more than $1.1 million from Del Norte County ratepayers for the removal of the four Klamath dams. Pacific Power has collected more than $2.3 million for dam removal from ratepayers in Siskiyou County where the Klamath Agreements have been akin to political kryptonite.

Some former Siskiyou County supervisors lost re-election campaigns due to their support of the agreements. In a recent statement, Tucker said the bills representing the Klamath Agreements have been stalled by Siskiyou County’s congressional representative, Congressman Doug LaMalfa.

Although Tucker and the Karuk Tribe are still hoping to move forward with Klamath Agreements legislations, they realize the political realities might decide the deal’s fate for them.

“These drought years are really hard on the salmon and if Congress can’t get with the program and make it happen, we’re going to do it through the courts and better venues. You can’t make laws with the Congress you want, you have to make laws with the Congress you have,” Tucker said, adding that the has nothing but respect for the Yurok Tribal Council and staff. “We do respect the Yurok Tribe’s decision to make a decision that they think is right for them.”

Some see the Yurok Tribe’s announcement as the first step in healing division among Klamath River tribes that was created from the Klamath Agreements.

Felice Pace, a longtime environmental activist of the Klamath River Basin that maintains KlamBlog, a blog with Klamath River-related news, said he was hopeful that the unity needed for true basin-wide restoration will be restored.

“I am encouraged that the Yurok Tribe has taken this step because in my opinion the tribe is much stronger when the three lower basin tribes are united,” Pace said.

Statements from the group, Honor the Treaty of 1864, a group of Klamath Tribes members voicing opposing views from the Klamath Tribes’ council illustrates the divide: “Many tribal members no longer have contact with family and close friends over divisive and destructive KBRA politics. Others have been denied tribal employment based solely on their stance regarding the dubious Klamath Basin water agreements,” the Honor the Treaty of 1864 statement says. The KBRA does nothing to heal historical and spiritual damages for Klamath, Modoc, Yahooskin people. By securing water primarily for agricultural purposes, the KBRA and associated documents perpetuate these damages and continue to inflict pain, trauma and division amongst our people.”