Improving dialogue led to Klamath agreements
Updated: Friday, March 11, 2011 3:38 PM
By TIM HEARDEN
For residents of the Klamath Basin these days, it all comes down to dialogue.
For some farmers in the basin that straddles the Oregon-California state line, the past years of dialogue with tribes and environmentalists have left a ray of hope for at least a somewhat reliable water supply.
For others, including those who distrust a pair of agreements aimed at resolving the basin's century-old water wars, dialogue is a dirty word.
Steve Kandra of Merrill, Ore., has been through the wars, having sued the federal government over the 2001 water shutoff that left farms without water during the height of irrigation season.
He and others were ordered by a judge to begin a dialogue with environmentalists and tribal leaders on the shutoff, which will see its 10-year anniversary in April.
Now he's a defender of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which details how to share water between fish and farms and restore the ecological balance of the basin.
"It is a negotiated process," said Kandra, who owns a hay and grain operation. "It was painfully fought and when you start looking at how negotiations go, it is as good as the people who put their heart into it (could hope for).
"There are folks who look at it and say it's not perfect because it doesn't meet all of their needs," he said. "There isn't one stakeholder in this process that got everything they wanted."
It's been a year since agreements were signed that aim to assure farmers water and power while laying out the removal of four dams in the Klamath River that block salmon from spawning grounds.
For decades, American Indians, farmers, salmon fishermen and environmentalists have fought in courts and legislative bodies over the basin's limited water supply.
The conflict began in the early 1900s, when the federal government started drawing water from lakes and rivers in the upper Klamath Basin to irrigate crops on dry uplands.
Veterans of World War I homesteaded the Klamath Reclamation Project near Klamath Falls, Ore., where potatoes, alfalfa, horseradish and cattle are still grown.
The conflict gained national attention in 2001, when biological opinions on endangered suckers and coho salmon prompted the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to abruptly shut off irrigation water to hundreds of farms.
But the discord certainly didn't start there, explained Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Spain has been involved in Klamath River issues since the 1980s, when a collapse of fisheries spurred passage of a restoration bill in Congress. But the bill's funding -- less than $1 million a year -- wasn't enough to restore the river, he said.
Still, the effort prompted competing interests to try to work together for the first time, he said.
"It was a good effort," Spain said. "It was recognized that people needed to work together on these issues, so they did create a coordination council."
In 2000, PacifiCorp, which owns four dams on the river, started consultation meetings on a 50-year renewal of their federal operating license. In the midst of those talks, the basin was thrown into crisis in 2001.
Irrigation for farms had long been constricted to assure enough water for endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake, the project's main reservoir. Then coho salmon were declared threatened in the Klamath River, prompting the water shutoff under the Endangered Species Act.
Protests included a mostly symbolic "bucket brigade," an encampment at one of the main headgates and a caravan of people from throughout the West who showed support for the farmers during a mid-summer demonstration in Klamath Falls.
At the time, Kandra was president of the Klamath Irrigation District, and he and others filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to resume water diversions.
U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Coffin ordered all the interested parties into mediation, which lasted about a year. In the meantime, the Bush administration restored water to the farms, although environmentalists blamed warm water and low levels in the Klamath River for the die-off of tens of thousands of Chinook salmon.
Though the court-ordered talks ended, they helped participants form relationships that helped with the later five-year negotiation that resulted in the dam removal agreement and restoration pacts, Spain said.
"I sat across the table with people who are good people," he said. "They looked at us and said, 'They're good people.' We started looking at the system we're in to see how we could make this better. ... Everyone has a legitimate claim to the water. There's just not enough water, so there has to be some compromises."
In the year since the groups gathered with state and federal officials in the Oregon Capitol Rotunda in Salem to sign the two landmark agreements, work to implement them has continued.
Measures have included more than $1 million in projects to benefit imperiled salmon and shortnose suckers in the river, a biological opinion examining the impact of increased flows and development of a water quality tracking plan.
In early January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved California's water quality improvement plan for the Klamath, which runs 255 miles from Klamath Falls to the Pacific Ocean on the north coast of California. Oregon's plan setting total maximum daily loads for various water quality factors is expected to be approved this month.
In September, the Oregon Public Utility Commission affirmed a dam removal surcharge for customers that will provide $184 million. A California surcharge proceeding is ongoing, and a decision is anticipated in April.
Under the restoration pact, farmers and ranchers are voluntarily conserving water as part of a deal to leave in-stream thousands of acre-feet of water that would otherwise be used to irrigate crops.
In return, the tribes have agreed to limit their calls on water, and conservationists will forego litigation in favor of a lengthy dispute resolution process.
The dams' removal wouldn't start until 2020 and would depend on funding, authorization from Congress and a determination by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that the measure is in the interest of both the salmon and the public. Salazar is expected to make his determination this fall.
Funding the project could be a challenge in the new Congress, which is expected to make budget-cutting a priority.
"I don't think it's a foregone conclusion by any means," Klamath Water Users executive director Greg Addington said. "It's really a hard one locally and politically. At the end of the day, what did it for my guys is ... PacifiCorp is a sophisticated operation and ... if they come to agreement and say, 'Yeah, we're in,' then we're going to be in, too."
Some conservation groups have characterized the river restoration as the biggest in U.S. history. But some farmers and ranchers in the basin complain the agreement doesn't go far enough in assuring them of a reliable water source or shielding them from environmental lawsuits.
Tom Mallams, a hay producer and trucking company operator in Beatty, Ore., said the KBRA could cause water shutoffs for some off-project irrigators even though their water rights precede landowners in the Klamath irrigation project.
Proponents of the KBRA "think it guarantees them some water, and it does not," Mallams said. "It does not guarantee in any way, size, shape or form that water will not be shut off as it has been in the past. ... It does not change or alter the biological opinion or the ESA, and that's what shuts the water off."
But Kandra said the KBRA will give irrigators a more reliable water supply, and will provide plans to restore fisheries and deal with economic catastrophe.
"From where I'm at, it's certainly better than the status quo," Kandra said. "The status quo for me is what happened in 2001 and in 2010 when deliveries were cut to the Klamath irrigation project."
Key dates for additional comment are:
* May 2011: The draft environmental impact statement will be reviewed in public meetings.
* September 2011: The final environmental impact statement will be issued.
* November 2011: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar could decide if dam removal and other parts of the Klamath restoration agreement are in the public interest.
It will take enabling legislation from Congress and voter approval for funding California's share of dam removal costs to make the project happen. A tentative demolition time frame is 2020.
Klamath Basin Coordinating Council: http://www.edsheets.com/Klamathdocs.html
Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement: http://klamathrestoration.gov