This article is abridged from the original, originally published in the Osprey. Read the full article containing an extensive history of events leading to the Klamath Agreements HERE.
For those keeping a watchful eye on the Klamath River, the 113th Congress’ lame duck session was quite the nail biter. A broad coalition of Tribes, conservation, fishing, and farming groups have been pressing congress since 2010 to pass legislation aimed at implementing a set of Agreements that would lead to the removal of the lower four Klamath River dams, fairly balance water use between the environment and agriculture, improve irrigation infrastructure, and restore fisheries habitat all across the basin.
Oregon Senators Wyden and Merkley and California Senators Feinstein and Boxer worked to include the Klamath legislation in one of the omnibus bills in early December but Congressmen Greg Walden blocked the bill language in the House, leaving Klamath communities with a lump of coal in their holiday stockings. However, some think that Congressman Walden’s stance may be softening in the wake of broadening support for the Agreements from his conservative base.
The Klamath Basin, a massive watershed about the size of Maryland (over 12,000 square miles) is home to unique and culturally diverse tribal communities—the Yurok, the Karuk and the Klamath Tribes—that still live along the Klamath River and fish its waters. The Klamath hosts an array of anadromous and resident fish, including the once numerous spring Chinook, fall Chinook, Pacific lamprey, Winter steelhead, green sturgeon, and endangered Coho salmon.
Europeans began colonizing the area 150 years ago, and conflicts over water began to arise with the draining of wetlands and the installation of canals and dams. These conflicts reached a peak in 2001 and 2002 when drought and federally-curtailed water use resulted in farmers losing their livelihoods and an estimated 68,000 salmon died before spawning in what has been called the largest adult fish kill in US history.
The Agreements, ceremoniously signed in 2010 after five years of difficult negotiation between parties and interest groups that had been in conflict over water use for over 100 years, describe rules for determining water allocations for agriculture, the river, Upper Klamath Lake and the wildlife refuges and provides for investment in habitat restoration and improvements to irrigation infrastructure. Also included is the enlargement of Upper Klamath Lake to more closely resemble its original size (prior to over 100 years of irrigation canals and drained wetlands, and the removal of the lower four Klamath dams in 2020.
The operating license for the hydroelectric dams, which block fish passage and create significant water quality impacts but only a modest amount of energy, is expired. Renewal of the license would require expensive upgrades including fish ladders and extensive mitigation that would exceed the cost of dam removal.
Just as the Agreements were being signed, however, the national economy was starting to melt down and Tea Party conservatives won enough seats in the House of Representatives to strangle any bills seeking to appropriate money.
In 2012, after nearly 40 years of percolating through the courts, a judge issued a determination in the Klamath adjudication, awarding senior water rights in the Upper Klamath Basin to the Klamath Tribes. Continued congressional inaction on the Klamath Agreements led to the assertion of these water rights by the Tribes in 2013, shutting water off to upstream irrigators.
The water shut-off led the Oregon congressional delegation to call for a Congressional Task Force to address this latest conflict. The Task Force, made up of representatives of many of the parties to the Klamath Agreements, trimmed the budget for implementing the Agreements and laid out the basic structure for a third Agreement, this one between the Klamath Tribes and irrigators upstream of Upper Klamath Lake. Early in 2014, the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement (UKBA) was signed. The UKBA allowed the Klamath Tribes to see their water needs met in a way that was flexible enough to keep irrigated agriculture in the Upper Basin economically viable. This Agreement also hinges on the implementation of the other two Klamath Agreements including provisions for dam removal.
Despite remarkably broad support from the bottom of the basin to the top, from the political far left to the far right, Congressman Walden still killed the bill, citing local opposition to dam removal from some corners of Klamath County, Oregon and Siskiyou County, California. But the fact remains that communities with the most at stake in the Klamath have developed a solution to the crisis that meets their collective needs to survive economically and culturally.
However, just days after the 113th Congress ended its session, Congressman Walden offered some cause for optimism. In a speaking tour in Klamath County, he appeared impressed by the reversal of some constituents to now support the Agreements, stating, “we’re taking a second look at that because of all of the issues that are at play with no real alternative on the table.”
The change in position by local leaders came slowly as many of the facts of the Agreements were made clear and the risks of doing nothing were becoming better understood. Those of us in the Lower Klamath Basin understand that conservative lawmakers have a general distaste for dam removal. But these dams in particular are not worth saving: they are poor power producers, they divert no irrigation water, and even their owner is supportive of their removal under terms of the Klamath Agreements. Additionally, no federal dollars will be used to remove them.
What is clear is that the fate of Klamath communities is in Congressman Walden’s hands. He is now a prominent leader of the Republican controlled House. Many of his constituents could face severe economic hardships if the drought persists another year and the Klamath Tribes have to once again exercise their senior water rights, thus curtailing irrigation diversions. He can ensure his constituents avoid this disaster by passing the Agreements that Klamath communities worked so hard to develop.