Walden and others must make Klamath water deal happen quickly: Editorial

farmFarming depends on irrigation from oversubscribed water sources in the Klamath Basin. Time runs out for adoption by Congress of a comprehensive water-sharing agreement. (Doug Beghtel/Staff/1997)

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By The Oregonian Editorial Board
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on November 28, 2015 at 2:30 PM, updated November 28, 2015 at 2:32 PM

The Klamath Basin supports a $700 million economy as well as the tens of thousands of migratory birds that lend mystery and, for the binocular set, glamor to the rugged landscape. But those who live in the basin and run ranches or farms or fish its waters are beyond weary of competing for the one resource that makes it all go: water.

In just one month, a set of hard-earned water-sharing agreements will, like crops in a hard drought year, wither and die. That’s unless Congress is immediately prodded by a formerly reluctant Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., to act.

Walden has indicated he’s crafting a plan to move the agreements forward without engaging Congress on the potentially charged subject of dam-removal. Good. He’s got two weeks before Congress is scheduled for recess and perhaps a bit of wiggle time beyond that. Gov. Kate Brown last week wisely sent an impassioned letter to Walden, as well as Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, urging action.

Watching paint dry is hard to do. That’s been the pace of the struggle by basin residents – ranchers, farmers and tribes among them – to address competition over water. The underlying hydrology is so out of whack that the basin has been on the equivalent of a federal gurney since 2001, when drought forced water managers to shut off the supply to keep water levels up to save fish protected by the Endangered Species Act. That year, farmers and ranchers in the basin clocked losses of about $40 million. Worse, the shut-off cleaved a divide through Klamath Basin communities over who should get water in parched years. Tempers and, occasionally, bias against tribes, flared.

But amid the strain something extraordinary grew: a set of compacts, brokered in basinwide discussions led by Oregon officials, that could deliver to ranchers, farmers and tribes a water-sharing plan requiring everyone to slake thirst. The overarching Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement would pay certain irrigators to use less or no water, restore the land’s capacity to retain water and otherwise ration the natural supply to meet basic needs while supporting fish runs. Fatally, however, the plan also called for the removal of four hydroelectric dams owned by PacifiCorp.

The hydrology is so out of whack that the basin has been on the equivalent of a federal gurney since 2001.

It was a no-go. While Wyden and Merkley advocated for the water-sharing agreements, Walden joined county commissioners and some others in the region in opposing dam removal. Congressional support of dam removal is viewed by some as setting a dangerous precedent for resolving natural resource debates. (Think Snake River dams and whether they severely impede salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia Basin.) Yet PacifiCorp fully supported dam removal in the Klamath Basin, extending into northern California, and otherwise faces expensive relicensing of the dams if they remain in place. The dams involved represent but 2 percent of PacifiCorp’s overall power-generation portfolio.

Walden has reportedly been working to devise a plan keeping dam-removal away from Congress and instead make it a matter to be decided by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a more expensive option to participant states but a potential path forward that would save the broader terms of the KBRA.

But the paint is really drying. Without a bill quickly pushed through the House, the terms of the KRBA will expire Jan. 1, 2016, throwing into the trash years of work and collaboration that would give to those working the basin’s land what they’ve been without for decades: certainty.

In her letter, Brown engaged in some pungent truth-telling: “Over the past 110 years, federal and state governments have over-promised what the (Klamath) river basin can reliably deliver,” she wrote. “Doing so has hurt irrigators, Native Americans, salmon, some of the nation’s first wildlife refuges, and all the diverse people who depend on a healthy and functioning river. It is time to right past wrongs and bring peace to where there has only been conflict.”

She thanked Wyden and Merkley for their efforts and called on Walden to make good on his entreaties that dam removal could work via FERC. She also said, correctly, “time is running out.”

The governor is right to jump into the fray. The KBRA is a standard-setting piece of work whose values could set things right in the basin but also serve as a model anywhere else that people find themselves competing for a share of a finite natural resource. But it starts first in Oregon, where the KBRA was birthed of necessity and where Oregon’s congressional delegation must finally make it happen.