Water & Drought

Klamath Basin water accords crumble as Congress fails to act

Klamath Basin water accords crumble

Stakeholders in the Klamath basin describe what it feels like for Congress to allow a landmark watershed agreement to expire in 2015.
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Stakeholders in the Klamath basin describe what it feels like for Congress to allow a landmark watershed agreement to expire in 2015.

Ronnie Reed was born 53 years ago into the Karuk Tribe, whose ancestral lands stretch through the forested Klamath River canyon in Humboldt and Siskiyou counties. For years, he has held a sacred role as tribal fisherman, netting the salmon used in the tribe’s ancient ceremonies. And for much of that time, he saw the potato farmers and cattle ranchers who live almost 200 miles upstream in the Klamath Basin as villains.

He saw their relentless demands for Klamath River water and the hydroelectric dams that stymied the river’s flow as part of the subjugation of native people in the West. And he blamed the farmers – and their water diversions – for the 2002 fish kill that left tens of thousands of salmon floating lifeless in the Klamath.

So, it’s no understatement to say Reed was distrustful of the farmers at the other end of the table when he began formal negotiations with them two years later over how to manage the watershed.

But after years of tedious – and sometimes heated – negotiations, his outlook began to change.

“When I first started going out to these meetings, we were archenemies,” Reed said this month outside the tribe’s office in Humboldt County. “By the time we got done with that process, we’re drinking a beer, we’re eating salmon, we’re eating a potato, we’re eating some beef, and we’re having civil conversations about, ‘How are we going to fix this world?’ ”

That spirit of compromise and collaboration that reshaped an entire river system’s water use – from its source in the high desert of southern Oregon to where it washes into the Pacific in Northern California – didn’t transfer to Washington, D.C.

Fueled by partisan acrimony over the proposed removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River – a crucial component in a trio of settlements that became known as the Klamath Agreements – Congress has once again adjourned for the year without passing a bill to authorize and fund the accords.

Without congressional approval, critical portions of the agreements will expire on Jan. 1.

More than 40 groups, including the Karuk, signed the first of the agreements in 2010, striking a broad compromise among divergent factions that had been at odds for decades.

The accords promised a more secure future for Klamath Basin farmers by guaranteeing them a more reliable supply of water to irrigate their crops. The agreements also promised restored habitat for several species of threatened or endangered fish, and they granted water to wildlife refuges plagued by drought. The settlements hinged on removal of the four privately owned dams – three in California and one in Oregon – that were long seen by tribes, environmental groups and fishing associations as harmful to migratory fish.

But dam removal was the major sticking point for opponents in the north state and Republicans in Washington, D.C. Western Republicans in both the House and Senate for five years have blocked efforts to advance legislation that included dam removal.

“Tearing down four perfectly good hydroelectric dams when we can’t guarantee enough electricity to keep your refrigerator running this summer is lunacy,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, a leading opponent of dam removal, said last week in a written statement. McClintock described the dam-removal agreements as a “greens-gone-wild episode.”

Though at least one Republican congressman said he’s hopeful the legislation will be resurrected next year, many of those who signed the Klamath Agreements said that, with dam removal off the table, extending the deals would require a new round of negotiations among the original parties. And they say that’s unlikely.

Already, the Yurok Tribe has pulled out of the process in frustration at congressional inaction. The Karuk and other tribes have signaled they’ll likely follow suit. At this point, many farmers in the community also are unlikely to return to the bargaining table, said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, representing the interests of 1,200 family farms and ranches in the Klamath Basin.

“We have districts in the Klamath Project basically saying, ‘This approach didn’t work,’ so what you’re seeing is more hard-liners surfacing and taking leadership roles,” Addington said.

Klamath dams map 

Finding compromise amid acrimony

The failure to amicably reshape water use on the rural Klamath River doesn’t bode well for other disputes on more complex watersheds in California, whose overstretched water supplies are a source of tension among fisheries advocates, cities and powerful farming interests. The divide among a few thousand family farmers, tribal members and anglers on the Klamath seems simple by comparison.

Plus, unlike the large water projects in California whose dams store millions of acre-feet for flood control, drinking water and irrigation downstream, these four Klamath dams are used primarily for hydroelectric power. They provide little storage for drinking water or agriculture. The farmers in the Klamath Basin receive their water from sources upstream of the disputed dams.

“My thought is if they can’t get it done here, what hope is there down the road for California and the other places?” farmer and cattle rancher Jim Carleton said outside a bustling potato packing plant in Merrill, Ore. “If they’re not going to get it done here on this scale, it seems like a pretty tall task to get it done on a larger scale, maybe impossible.”

Those who signed the agreements say it’s all the more galling that Congress failed to enact them, given it was federal lawmakers who set the settlements in motion.

“In the tough times of 2001 and 2002, when it was just bitter, bitter conflict, Congress actually told us to get a solution,” Addington said. “They said, ‘Quit banging on our desks. We can’t solve this for you. We need you to do it.’ So we did it.”

Years of tensions over water use on the Klamath boiled over in the drought of 2001, when federal regulators shut off the water to Klamath Basin farms in spring, amid concerns further irrigation would kill off coho salmon and two other endangered fish species. In response, nearly 10,000 farmers and their allies rallied in “bucket brigade” protests. At one point, a small group of activists took a blowtorch and saw to a closed irrigation-canal head gate.

My thought is if they can’t get it done here, what hope is there down the road for California and the other places?

Jim Carleton, Oregon farmer and cattle rancher

The next year, the administration of President George W. Bush reversed course and let farmers irrigate. Tribes, environmental groups and fishing associations were outraged, in turn, when tens of thousands of migrating salmon died in the low flows that followed the water diversions.

Though lawsuits were pending, the various factions in 2004 agreed to begin talks that eventually changed how the watershed was managed.

Under the agreements, Klamath Basin farmers agreed to take less water in exchange for more reliability, with guaranteed amounts set each year. The idea was to reduce the possibility of unexpected cutbacks in the middle of the growing season when conditions threaten fish.

A related settlement signed in 2014 reshaped water allotments in the watershed’s upstream reaches. The Klamath Tribes, the federally recognized nation made up of Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin Indians, have senior water rights, but they agreed to share water with upper basin farmers in exchange for habitat restoration and the retirement of thousand of acres of agricultural land.

The drought-plagued Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, an annual stopover for millions of migrating birds, also was a winner. The agreements ensured refuges would receive a share of water nearly on par with local irrigators.

For environmentalists, anglers and the salmon-dependent tribes living in impoverished rural communities along the Klamath, dam removal was seen as the biggest victory. They’ve long complained the dams block salmon and other migratory fish from critical spawning habitat, reduce water quality and contribute to the low flows that kill fish.

They had an ally in the power company that owns the dams, Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp.

The dams in question range from 50 to 100 years old and provide power to 70,000 homes. Spokesman Bob Gravely said that amounts to less than 2 percent of the power in PacifiCorp’s system, and removing them would have little impact on the power grid.

“Our energy load in the Klamath Basin can be served from a gas plant in Salt Lake or a wind farm on the Columbia Gorge, so we don’t anticipate any issue with replacing the power,” he said.

No one has shown me that taking down the dams is beneficial to fish or people.

U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale

Still, dam removal and the associated habitat restoration efforts outlined in the settlements are expensive, estimated to cost at least $1 billion. The power company, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, insisted on a provision that capped its share of dam removal costs at $200 million. The settlement also has a provision that helps shield PacifiCorp from legal bills should demolition of the dams cause problems.

If the dams are to stand, Gravely said, they’ll need serious upgrades such as fish ladders for state and federal officials to relicense them. This costly prospect has some who signed the agreements wondering whether the dams’ days are numbered, regardless of the settlements.

“I think PacifiCorp would like to be rid of this asset,” said S. Craig Tucker, who advocates for dam removal on behalf of the Karuk Tribe. “I don’t think we need to have an act of Congress to solve that problem. ... What we have is an arrangement where we could remove dams, restore fisheries and give ag a soft landing. The alternative is to remove dams and not have a soft landing.”

Siskiyou voters say dams should stay

So why didn’t Congress sign off?

Expense was part of it. Under the settlements, the federal government would agree to appropriate up to $800 million to fund the projects outlined in the accords, and California would pay up to $250 million for dam removal. Republican opponents said it amounted to a gift from taxpayers to farmers and to Buffett.

The accords also met with loud opposition in Siskiyou County, home of three of the four dams. Though the Klamath River snakes through the county, only a small group of Siskiyou County farmers in the Tulelake area near Oregon were part of the settlement agreements. Most of the Klamath Basin’s farmers and ranchers are in Oregon.

In 2010, nearly 80 percent of Siskiyou County voters passed a symbolic referendum condemning dam removal. Some of the most vocal opponents were the conservative activists behind the movement to carve an independent State of Jefferson out of rural Northern California and southern Oregon. Along the curvy Highway 96 which follows the Klamath River’s path through Siskiyou County, the movement’s green and yellow double-X insignia pops up every few miles, sometimes beside signs protesting dam removal.

The activists contend that removing the dams is yet another example of out-of-area regulators imposing their will on locals who will have to live with the consequences. They say the reservoirs behind the dams are vital for recreation and property values, and they cite concerns about environmental risks caused by dam removal and the loss of a local source of electricity.

“I just don’t think ... people have the confidence that the right motives are being exercised here,” said Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey, an opponent of dam removal. “And we feel that there are bureaucrats that work for the Department of the Interior and other regulatory agencies who are promulgating this policy without regards for the people of Siskiyou County.”

U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, whose district includes Siskiyou County, has heard these sentiments from constituents, and he shares them.

“No one has shown me that taking down the dams is beneficial to fish or people,” he said in a recent interview off the floor of the House of Representatives.

Now that the deals appear dead, dam-removal advocates say they’ll renew efforts to have the dams torn down through other means, including the pending relicensing process. And some of those involved say they’ll try to salvage other pieces of the accords. But there’s a looming dread that a new round of lawsuits will be filed soon and tensions again will escalate.

Everybody ... had the same goal as I do: They wanted stability for their communities. They wanted something there for their future generations.

Luther Horsley, Klamath Basin rancher

Klamath Basin rancher Luther Horsley said it’s disappointing. He saw the accords as securing an agricultural future for his family.

On a brisk fall morning in Midland, Ore., near the California border, Horsley stood on the back of a pickup tossing hay out to a herd of cattle. His 3-year-old grandson, Wes, sat in the driver’s seat. His feet, clad in miniature, scuffed cowboy boots, couldn’t touch the pedals, so the truck in its lowest gear crept along as Wes steered.

“If we can’t irrigate our crops, then our farming operation’s not viable, then we won’t be here for my grandson,” Horsley said. “That’s why I was so behind these agreements, and why it was so easy to throw in with the other parties.

“Everybody, the other negotiators, the other stakeholders in the process ... had the same goal as I do: They wanted stability for their communities. They wanted something there for their future generations.”

Four hours west at the Karuk tribe’s office in Orleans, the future of the Klamath River also is very much on Reed’s mind.

Every fall, he heads down the canyon to a set of rapids called Ishi Pishi Falls. There, he balances on slippery rocks and scoops salmon out of the river using a small net strung between a pair of long poles, the same method used by his ancestors. The hundreds of fish he catches feed the tribe. These salmon also play an integral part in the Karuk’s annual World Renewal Ceremony.

Reed says that his days as a negotiator may be over. He said he’s ready to become an activist again to ensure the dams come down so that his people can continue to have the fish they’ve relied on for centuries.

“It’s a way of life,” he said. “It’s not something the Karuk Tribe is willing to back off of.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow