Tribes urge action from Congress
Waiting until next year not an option
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, during a recent visit to Klamath Falls.
The Klamath Tribes are continuing to urge Congress to formalize a much-awaited water pact, and say they won’t support anything less than what was agreed upon in the Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act.
In a Dec. 4 letter to U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry wrote that rumors are indicating members of Congress “may believe the discussion draft of the Klamath bill can wait until next year for action.”
According to Gentry, waiting until next year isn’t an option.
“On Jan. 1, 2016, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement will terminate if Congress has not enacted authorizing legislation,” he wrote, explaining that the Klamath Tribes, as well as the Karuk and Yurok tribes, all filed dispute notices signaling their intent to withdraw from the agreements, if necessary.
“If legislation is not enacted this year, the agreement will terminate if even one of the party tribes has not withdrawn its dispute notice,” he wrote.
Members of the House and Senate have little more than one week to pass the Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act through their committees and on to President Barack Obama’s desk to be signed into law. The 2015 congressional session is scheduled to adjourn Dec. 18.
Walden clarifies statement
Gentry’s letter was sent in the wake of a settlement draft House bill Walden released last week for comment. The legislation provides water certainty for irrigators and directs the federal Bureau of Reclamation to provide affordable power for farmers, ranchers and communities in the Basin.
A news release said in exchange for 100,000 acres of timberland for economic development, the Klamath Tribes must “waive” its senior water right. In his letter, Gentry points out that use of “waive” is an inaccurate description of what the Tribes agreed to in the Klamath Basin Restoration Act (KBRA).
“That was a misstatement on our part,” Walden said.
More important to many stakeholders, however, is the omission of a key bargained-for-benefit: dam removal.
As part of the 2010 KBRA and Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, stakeholder parties agreed to include a provision in the pacts for removing four dams — J.C. Boyle, Iron Gate, Copco 1 and Copco 2 — from the Klamath River.
Noting the absence of dam removal, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., who represents California’s 2nd district, called the draft “fundamentally flawed.”
“Unfortunately, Congressman Walden’s draft conspicuously leaves out the dam removal that’s vital to river restoration — the centerpiece of the whole agreement for my constituents in California,” Huffman said. The 2nd district encompasses much of the Northern California coast.
Water war threat
Konrad Fisher, executive director of Klamath Riverkeeper, said he believes excluding dam removal undermines the compromises reached after a decade of negotiation between tribes, irrigators, conservationists and fishing communities.
“Walden is forcing us back into litigation and water wars,” Fisher said.
Gentry pointed out that although the draft legislation doesn’t include dam removal — a major bargained-for benefit of the Klamath, Karuk and Yurok Tribes, as well as other parties to the pact — it does not necessarily preclude it, either.
“I don’t see how the Senate can pass a bill without a clear path to dam removal, or with the land giveaway to the counties,” Gentry said. “I hope the Congressman will reconsider these aspects of the draft so that legislation that is consistent with what the parties bargained for can successfully move forward.”
Walden pointed out that three of the four Klamath River dams slated for removal are in Siskiyou County. He said PacifiCorp, the corporation that owns the dams, is the county’s biggest taxpayer.
“The dams (Gentry) seeks to have removed leave a gaping hole in the taxbase,” he said.
According to Walden, having the dams removed doesn’t actually require congressional action. He said it is within PacifiCorp’s rights to petition the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to have the dams removed.
“The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, I don’t think has ever turned down a request by a willing party to remove a dam,” Walden said. “So if PacifiCorp chose to do this, they could. It doesn’t have to be federally legislated.”
Land swaps under scrutiny
A proposal included in the bill to transfer 100,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land to both Klamath and Siskiyou counties has also been met with concern.
According to Huffman, the acreage “adds poison pills (to the bill) in the form of massive giveaways of public lands that were never part of the settlement.”
According to Walden, the lands would be used for timber production to grow jobs in rural communities and to improve forest health. But, to longtime negotiators who have gone head-to-head with county leadership opposing the settlements, the proposal is less than ideal.
Gentry said the land giveaway “goes far beyond the bounds of the agreements.”
“Siskiyou County has refused all attempts to wrap themselves into the agreements, consistently demonstrating their unwillingness to effectively seek reasoned resolution to the issues at hand. It is not equitable to simply give land to an entity that has been nothing but antagonistic towards every reasonable effort to collaboratively resolve problems in the Basin,” Gentry said.
Walden sees it differently.
“I thought, given how federal government does such as poor job managing our forests, and allowing the counties to have a crack at 100,000, like the Tribes, would create jobs and create some tax income for the counties,” Walden said.
Room for compromise
Huffman said he remains committed to Walden, and Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, who together sponsored a Senate version of the act. That version has been stalled since January in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
“I’m not giving up. But like many Klamath stakeholders, my patience is wearing thin. Whether through congressional action … or through other legal means, the Klamath dams will come out and the tribes and other downstream interests I represent along the Klamath River will see the fisheries restored,” Huffman said.
Dan Keppen, former executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said for him, just having a draft House bill is encouraging.
“The important thing is we now have movement toward action being taken in the House and the Senate, which gives me hope that some sort of a compromise can be reached if the two sides can get together and aggressively make this a priority. Time will tell if there’s enough time to allow that happen,” Keppen said.
In a news release sent out Monday, 14 Basin stakeholder groups released a joint statement reminding lawmakers that the agreements represent a “careful balance of benefits and compromises” hashed out over more than a decade of negotiations.
“We strongly urge the senators and members of Congress who represent the Klamath Basin to roll up their sleeves and finalize legislation that achieves the goals of the parties to the settlement. With the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement poised to expire at the end of this month, there is no time to waste,” the statement said.
Walden said chances are slim the pact will be attached to a year-end spending bill. He said the process is no less complicated than the one the bill is in now.
“It’s pretty hard to put a major piece of legislation, which this would be, authorizing projects onto the year-end spending bill.
“It may sound like it’s easy. It isn’t,” Walden said.
Finding a way forward in Klamath Basin’s 11th hour: Editorial Agenda
December 08, 2015 at 4:51 PM
updated December 08, 2015 at 5:39 PM
Oregon Rep. Greg Walden gave Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden a case of political whiplash last week, when he pitched a broken plan to broker water use in the oversubscribed Klamath Basin. Some form of that plan, which deletes dam-removal from hard-earned water-sharing agreements that will expire without congressional action, could show up this week or next as proposed legislation. But much has to happen – and fast – if Klamath is to find relief and dams are to be removed without congressional approval.
Hydroelectric dam removal, a centerpiece of the water-sharing agreements, is tricky. It spooks those who associate the taming of the rugged West with yoking rivers for power that supports agriculture and human settlement. Congress’ approval of dam-removal is viewed by some as encouraging to environmentalists out to re-engineer the West to favor wildlife over people and economic growth.
Wyden and Merkley, meanwhile, had worked their own Senate bill earlier this year that would have asked Congress to approve the extensive Klamath water agreements, hammered out over years by farmers, ranchers, conservationists, tribes, public lands managers and elected officials, among them the senators. In those agreements is the call to remove four dams along the Klamath River – one in Oregon, three in northern California – to improve water quality for migrating salmon and fish to which tribes have legal rights. But nothing happened.
Even so, the dams face a federal relicensing process that will cost more than their removal, applauded by their owner, the utility PacifiCorp, as long as the company wins liability protection against claims the removal harms fish or the environment. Flows in the Klamath River, meanwhile, are affected by broader realms of the Klamath Basin to which the agreements apply, where water for agriculture fuels a $700 million economy. The divisive 2001 federal shutoff of water to Klamath farms was connected to river flows, and the disastrous fish die-off in the Klamath River a year later was related to the federal government’s jolt of water to farmers upriver.
The nastiest challenge in Walden’s plan, however, is in its proposed transfer of 100,000 acres of federally owned forests to Klamath and Siskiyou counties each – an unprecedented giveaway that Oregon’s senators, in a joint statement, called “a known nonstarter in the Senate.” While Walden obviously pushes to jumpstart rural economies by advocating a transfer of federally owned lands, his proposal signals that the counties in which the dams are situated depend up on taxes paid to them on the dams and that loggable lands could offset losses. Separately, Walden’s proposal that the Klamath Tribes waive their senior water right in exchange for 100,000 acres of timberland for economic development is correctly seen by tribal leadership as self-defeating and outside the logic of the interlocking agreements
Merkley, in an interview late Tuesday with the editorial board of The Oregonian/OregonLive, said Klamath relief is not yet dead, even though the agreements expire Jan. 1, 2016. He said the dams might win clearance for removal without Congress’ OK if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved and if liability coverage for PacifiCorp were to be found. More challenging, however, is finding a way to offset tax losses to counties in which dams are situated. Since the lands transfer won’t fly – such lands must only be brokered in a swap for something else – Merkley said lawmakers were searching to find a way to compensate affected counties for tax losses in the event of dam removal.
Walden on Tuesday told the editorial board his plan was “a serious alternative product” and that “nobody should be surprised by this,” as it was configured over a year’s worth of meetings with stakeholders throughout the basin. “We knew it would engender some discussion,” he said.
The only consequential discussions forward will be in the form of hard negotiations among members, from both parties, of the Oregon and northern California delegations. The forward part has only days in it, however, while groups and tribes from the Klamath Basin took years to unravel failed government promises about water availability and to put ready answers on the table. It would be shameful to fail them.