BY GREG ADDINGTON | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
The Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) represents irrigation districts and irrigators served through the federal Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project. The districts have contracts with the United States providing for the delivery of water to nearly 1,200 family farms and ranches in south central Oregon and northernmost California. These are the same family farms that made national headlines in 2001 when the government did not allow water delivery in order to protect three federally listed endangered or threatened species; two sucker species found in Upper Klamath Lake and coho salmon in the Lower Klamath River.
A lot has happened in the Klamath Basin since 2001. In the past, the fight over water included dueling press releases, litigation, and trips to Washington, DC where each group of stakeholders would demand that Congress fix “my” problem. In the end, the message that our elected officials gave to each of us was that Congress can’t fix your problem; the stakeholders had to work it out and bring Congress a solution to implement.
So we did. KWUA along with many of our former adversaries, including Indian tribes, conservation groups, fishing groups and local, state and federal governments, spent much of the last 8 years developing relationships in order that each group might secure a more predictable future. These disparate groups actually found a lot in common, including a similar love of community, culture and a rural lifestyle. After nearly five years of passionate and intense negotiations, a deal was agreed to by over 40 separate parties.
The overall agreement, known as the Klamath Settlement (which is a combination of two separate agreements) includes a settlement of water right issues amongst farmers, ranchers, tribes and the federal government. It also sets up the removal of 4 hydro-power-only dams on the Klamath River (1 dam in Oregon and 3 in California). The dams’ sole purpose is power production and their removal (under terms of the settlement) is supported by the private utility (PacifiCorp) that owns them. Should the dams stay, they must be brought up to current environmental standards at cost that many believe would not make economic sense.
This portion of the settlement was a tough pill for many of our members to swallow. But at the end of the day this is a Basin-wide settlement with many competing views including those of a private company making a business decision, which the Public Utilities Commission agrees is in the interest of PacifiCorp’s customers.
For KWUA, the issue has always been providing family farmers and ranchers with an adequate and dependable supply of water to grow crops that in turn fuel part of the state’s economic engine. Other parties respected that interest and in turn, we respected their interest in matters such as fisheries restoration and firm water deliveries for national wildlife refuges.
In 2011, Senator Merkley provided important leadership and introduced legislation to implement the Klamath Settlement. There are opponents, including ideologues on the political left AND right. Some argue the deal is too good for farmers, others argue that the deal is too good for Indians. The truth is that the deal represents compromise and a practical approach to dealing with one of the most intractable water disputes in the country. Unfortunately in my opinion, some policy makers who urged Basin stakeholders to “work it out amongst yourselves” now seem unwilling to stand with this diverse group and advance legislation that will address so many complex issues in an equitable, efficient and pragmatic way.
Today, Klamath Project families face another water shortage, the third in the last four years, and likely one of the worst years on record. Producers have no idea how much water will be available this summer, or how much water will be dedicated to Endangered Species. These family-run operations have contracts to deliver crops to national companies who make products including potato chips, french fries, and toothpaste (we grow mint). The production of other crops such as horseradish, onions, grain, beef and dairy products are also at risk. Put yourself in this position, imagine your family’s income is at this kind of risk every year, how do you plan? Welcome to Klamath.
The Klamath Settlement addresses issues in a favorable way for fish, refuges, farms, businesses and others. They cost money, but so do the pending disasters we have in the Basin on an annual basis. Unlike disaster spending, the Klamath Settlement is an investment, and solves problems for the long-term. Oregonians should demand that opponents provide a viable alternative or get out of the way. It is time for the people of Oregon to be heard on this issue and it is time for real leaders in Washington to step up, confront the hard questions, and take up the Klamath Settlement in a meaningful way.
Greg Addington has been the Executive Director for the Klamath Water Users Association for the past 8 years. He directed the organization’s participation in the negotiations of the Klamath Settlement Agreements.
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