In a move that could have ramifications across the arid West, a government watchdog agency accused federal water regulators of wasting taxpayer funds when they gave Klamath Basin farmers more than $32 million to stop growing crops and to pump groundwater instead of drawing from lakes and rivers.
The funds were spent in a failed bid to protect endangered fish and wildlife near the California-Oregon border, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of the Interior said in a report this week.
The inspector general slammed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for not having legal authority to enter into a seven-year agreement that reimbursed farmers and said bureau officials were wrong to take funds that Congress had set aside to help struggling species and give them to the now-defunct Klamath Water and Power Agency.
The watchdog agency said there was little evidence the program helped threatened coho salmon and two kinds of endangered sucker fish. In fact, the report says, it might have further strained the watershed because the pumping lowered groundwater already depleted by years of drought.
Moreover, it said, the program didn’t provide much water to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, a critical habitat for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.
“We determined that the benefits ... flowed primarily to irrigation contractors rather than fish and wildlife,” the inspector general’s report said.
More than $4 million of the funds went to salaries, rent, travel and other expenses that the watchdog agency determined to be “questionable” or “unallowable” under the law.
“It was almost like (they were) using these funds as their own cookie jar,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Klamath Water and Power Agency, which managed the funds, closed earlier this year after the Bureau of Reclamation stopped making payments.
The bureau and farmers defended the program as legal and successful. The inspector general had unfairly bashed an innovative water-sharing program for what amounted to minor bureaucratic mix-ups, they said.
“Reclamation maintains that (the reimbursement program) has been an important tool in dealing with water issues in an over-allocated basin,” the bureau said in a written statement.
Supporters say the program kept more surface water in the lakes and rivers where fish and birds most needed it, while also helping farmers avoid devastating financial losses during a prolonged drought.
It avoided costly legal challenges to water cutbacks, and more water flowed to the refuge than it otherwise would have in drought years, they said. The refuge typically receives its water only after the farmers, who have senior water rights, get theirs.
The Klamath Water Users Association blamed the report on groups “hostile to the farm and ranch families that rely on the Klamath Reclamation Project for their irrigation water supply.”
The report outraged environmentalists and others who have been trying for years to secure more water for wildlife.
“Here is money that is supposed to be spent specifically to benefit the refuges, and even that is taken away,” said Michael Lynes, director of public policy at Audubon California. “That’s what makes this sting so much.”
Jennifer Harder, a law professor at University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, said that most of the red flags raised in the report might have been avoided had the Bureau of Reclamation better documented the benefits to fish and wildlife and explained its rationale.
Harder said that’s a shame, because it’s important for government agencies to find creative ways to better balance the needs of wildlife and farming.
“(Reclamation) was trying to do something that was, in a sense, very smart,” she said. “They were trying a physical solution to balancing and accommodating both agriculture and environmental flows. That’s very tricky business.”