KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expects to finish a report by Thanksgiving taking aim at skyrocketing power costs for farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Project.
Regulators will share preliminary results of the congressionally directed study at a public meeting Sept. 10 in Klamath Falls, co-hosted by the Klamath Water Users Association.
Affordable power has become a major concern for irrigators in the Klamath Project, which serves more than 1,200 family farms over 200,000 acres in Southern Oregon and Northern California. For decades, water users received low-cost electricity based on special contracts with Pacific Power.
But those contracts expired in 2007, and since then rates have increased dramatically — as much as 2,500% in some cases.
Congress passed a $6 billion water infrastructure bill in 2018 that included several provisions for the Klamath Project, one of which requires the Bureau of Reclamation to come up with solutions for reducing power costs in line with the rest of the Pacific Northwest.
Mike Neuman, project manager for the bureau in Klamath Falls, said the study will identify a "power cost benchmark" and recommend ways to curb power costs, such as solar or small hydroelectric developments.
The bureau hired Kleinschmidt Associates, an engineering firm based in Portland, to provide technical services for the report. Neuman said the public is also invited to share feedback at the meeting, scheduled from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Klamath Community College Conference Center, 7390 S. 6th St.
Unlike other Reclamation projects, the Klamath Project does not generate electricity on its own. In 1917, the bureau allowed Pacific Power's predecessor, the Oregon-California Power Co., to build Link River Dam in exchange for selling low-cost power to irrigators.
When Pacific Power approached the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 1956 for a license to operate the full Klamath River Hydroelectric Project — which includes J.C. Boyle, Copco 1, Copco 2 and Iron Gate dams — the same power contracts were extended for another 50 years through 2006.
The contracts, however, were not renewed after the license expired. Water users attempted to strike another deal for cheap power with the bureau in the proposed Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, though it too failed to pass before expiring in 2015.
Paul Simmons, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said rates that were once .6 cents per kilowatt-hour are now 14-16 cents per kilowatt-hour. Lower cost alternatives available in other parts of Oregon, such as hydroelectricity marketed by the Bonneville Power Administration, are also not provided in the Klamath Basin.
Simmons said affordable power is critical in the Klamath Project since it allows farmers and irrigation districts to invest in water efficiency projects to last through drought years, while benefiting endangered fish species.
"When you talk to a person who says they used to pay $800 a year for this pump, and now they're paying $5,000 a year, it's a big deal for the feasibility of operations," Simmons said. "They start changing irrigation methods that don't require as much power, but that might not be as efficient."
A provision in the America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 requires the bureau to study the problem and possible solutions. Simmons said the KWUA is "very pleased" with Reclamation's engagement and expertise.
Ben Duval, a farmer in Tulelake, Calif. and power committee chairman for the KWUA, echoed his appreciation.
"We had very low rates for good reason, but regulatory requirements change and now we are in a bad position," Duval said. "Affordable power is critical to being able to recycle and re-use water to maintain that efficiency, as well as allowing us to deliver water to our partners, the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges."