KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — Familiar fights over dam removal have bogged down negotiations of a task force on Klamath Basin water and power issues that had hoped to complete its work by the beginning of this month.
With electricity costs having risen significantly since 2006, federal legislation is needed by next February to provide irrigators outside the Klamath Reclamation Project with immediate, low-cost power from the Bonneville Power Administration.
But tribal representatives on the task force say they’ll have trouble supporting a federal bill while some Upper Basin ranchers continue fighting implementation of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.
“With this whole Klamath thing, we’re one big family, and you don’t get to pick your relatives,” said Craig Tucker, Klamath coordinator for the Karuk Tribe. “I want those guys to be part of the whole package.
“The principle is they’re trying to extend power benefits to off-project irrigators,” he said in an interview. “I’m good with that, but that means those guys have to be supportive of the other elements of the whole agreement. We’re not going to support power benefits and (Endangered Species Act) take coverage unless they also support fisheries restoration.”
Becky Hyde of the Upper Klamath Water Users Association, a KBRA supporter, countered that it’s unreasonable to try to force new faces at the negotiating table to immediately back dam removal.
“This process has opened us back up to throwing a wide net again,” she said. “I’m just encouraging us to take some time and let other people get included into what’s going on.”
The discussions over power came as the more than two dozen members of the Klamath Basin Task Force convened here Sept. 19, two weeks after they were supposed to have their final meeting. And facilitator Richard Whitman, Oregon’s natural resources policy director, said it’ll take a few more weeks to iron out remaining issues.
The panel will meet again Oct. 10 in Klamath Falls.
“The water group has been making substantial progress toward having something to roll out to the public,” Whitman told about 50 people gathered in a meeting room at the Oregon Institute of Technology.
The meeting came as U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., was slated to visit the Klamath Basin on Sept. 20 to hail the task force’s work. Wyden and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber hastily assembled the panel this summer to address water scarcity in the Upper Basin, cutting the cost of irrigation electricity and cutting the cost of the dam-removal and restoration pacts, which was originally set at $1.1 billion and later estimated at $800 million.
The task force was convened after the Klamath Tribes and the federal government made calls on their water rights in June, forcing tens of thousands of acres in the drought-stricken Upper Basin to go without surface water irrigation this summer.
So far, the only consensus the task force has reached has been on the cost of the KBRA. A subcommittee reported that various cost reductions and the availability of non-federal funds slash the project’s remaining price tag over the next 10 years to $464 million, which Whitman said is a 38 percent reduction in proposed new spending.
Whitman said the group will still finish in time for legislation reflecting its recommendations to be introduced in Congress this fall. But some in the audience were dissatisfied with the panel’s direction.
“I don’t think they’re accomplishing what Mr. Wyden wants them to,” said Harold Hartman, a Malin, Ore., rancher whose family has on-project and off-project property and has cut its irrigation from surface water drastically in recent years.
But Klamath County Commissioner Dennis Linthicum said he isn’t surprised the task force has taken this long to find solutions.
“It is a lengthy process,” he said. “I still think they need to keep their pencils sharp to come to reasonable answers.”
Linthicum said the committee should realize that fresh water is a precious resource.
“It’s important to use it for its best available use rather than to just run it down the Klamath and make saltwater out of it,” he said.