After the dams come down: Klamath Basin stakeholders seek to resurrect water sharing agreements
For thousands of Oregon and California ranchers and farmers who rely on Klamath River Basin water, their primary concern is not whether dams will be removed, but what happens afterward.
“We’re still trying to find some solution that will get us in a better place,” Klamath Falls area cattle rancher and grain farmer Luther Horsley said. “Everybody is still concerned about what happens when the dams come out and when the new fish species are reintroduced into the region. Any regulatory burdens that are put on the irrigators are also a concern.”
How to resolve decades of water rights disputes, keep power rates affordable and ensure there is enough water for crops, cattle, and federally protected fish in the basin were issues thought to have been resolved in a series of agreements drafted nearly six years ago, which also included a dam removal proposal.
But after those agreements failed to gain traction through Congress through the start of 2016, ranchers, farmers, tribes and environmental groups in the Klamath Basin will now have to come up with a more agreeable plan of action, or one that will not require congressional approval.
Upper Klamath Basin rancher and consultant Becky Hyde said the only way to preserve the spirit of the old agreements is to continue the partnerships and keep a collaborative stance rather than fall back into costly legal battles and mistrust.
“If you pull a string anywhere in the basin, you start to unravel all of us,” she said. “We need everybody working to solve these problems even though there are different components that belong to different parts of the community.”
Still, the plans are still meeting resistance at both a federal and local level, which may make avoiding litigation impossible.
A NEW PLAN
A plan to remove four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River by 2020, known as the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement, is nearing its submission to a federal commission this summer. The commission will decide whether the project will move forward. If the dams are removed, it will reopen hundreds of miles of new habitat to migrating salmon in the Upper Klamath Basin that have been blocked for close to a century.
But dam removal is only one component of a strategy aimed at completing the largest river restoration project in U.S. history.
Two other agreements — the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement — were also signed on by a multitude of parties to fund infrastructure improvements for basin irrigators to prepare for the arrival of new fish as well as to ensure that irrigators had enough water to satiate their crops and livestock.
The agreements also addressed concerns raised by Klamath River tribes to ensure there would be enough water and flows to protect threatened fish that they physically and culturally rely on.
After these agreements expired at the end of 2015 after failing to pass through Congress, a new plan was created in April — known as the Klamath Power Facilities Agreement — which committed state, federal, tribal and environmental organizations to once again work with basin irrigators to resurrect the key components of the failed agreements.
Horsley said he has supported the past agreements as he believed they would allow irrigators to use more water for crops that is currently having to be put toward maintaining the quality of the river for endangered fish.
Despite the resistance from Congress and other irrigation districts in the basin, Horsley said he is confident that a new plan of action will be completed.
“For myself, I certainly don’t want to return to the litigation prior to the settlement agreements,” he said. “We just made a lot of lawyers wealthy.”
Horsley is a board member of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents about 1,200 family farms and ranches in the basin and is a supporter and signatory of the dam removal and water sharing agreements. Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Scott White said that whatever new agreement is drafted needs to address power rates, which he said have “gone through the roof since 2006.”
By stabilizing power rates, Hyde said it will make the basin competitive with other agricultural areas.
The four hydroelectric dams slated for removal are owned by the Portland-based power company PacifiCorp, which provides power to the Klamath Basin.
But for White, ensuring there is a reliable source of water that won’t be cut off due to water rights disputes or fish management issues is a key element that needs to be maintained.
“That’s what makes the crops grow and keeps people’s operations surviving,” he said. “Having that reliability would be huge for us.”
LEGISLATION AND LEGAL CHALLENGES
As the dam removal plan progresses this year, opponents of the plan such as the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors and 1st District California Congressman Doug LaMalfa who represents Siskiyou County have already announced their intentions to challenge it.
North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) said that even though Congress will not have a say in whether the dam removal plan is approved, he said there have already been attempts to sabotage the plan.
For instance, he said LaMalfa had already attempted earlier this month to amend an appropriations bill for the U.S. Interior Department that would “block funding in a way that would frustrate the (dam removal) agreement.”
The amendment failed, Huffman said.
“He’s a sworn foe of dam removal and he’s not alone,” Huffman said. “... I’m going to do everything I can to prevent mischief from opponents of this in Congress and we’ll see how the next few months unfold.”
Siskiyou County Counsel Brian Morris said that the county has opposed the dam removal agreement since its inception in 2010 and will continue to monitor the plan to ensure federally protected fish species and the river are adequately protected.
“We know there are a number of decision points in the future regarding litigation, but those choices will be informed by the substance and timing of future agency actions themselves,” he said.