Tribes and Enviros mixed on Klamath Agreement


In a refreshingly cordial ceremony on February 18, three Native American tribes, the federal government, the states of Oregon and California, and an electric utility signed two agreements that promise to restore the Klamath Basin to health and end decades of rancor among the region's stakeholders.

The documents were signed in the echoing rotunda of the Oregon State Capitol beneath a mural of the traditional Native American salmon fishing platforms at Celilo on the Columbia River (long since drowned by The Dalles dam). The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement lay out plans to remove four dams and rebalance water distribution to farmers and ranchers, tribes, wildlife, and hydroelectric interests.

The Klamath Basin straddles the Oregon-California border. Its rivers and lakes have suffered an all-too-familiar litany of insults, including fish die-offs, algal blooms, droughts, and other noxious events as a result of hydroelectric modifications, industrial farming, and climate variations.

During a drought in 2001, matters rose to a fierce boil. In accordance with the Endangered Species Act, the federal government cut off water to agriculture to protect the endangered sucker fish and threatened coho salmon. Angry farmers, defiantly camping along an irrigation canal, installed their own pump and irrigation pipe to bypass the canal headgates. According to the Washington Post, then-Vice President Dick Cheney flaunted federal statutes and saw to it that the water came back to the agricultural interests. The next year an estimated 68,000 fish died because the ongoing drought and Bush administration policy left them no water.

Frustration and bitterness reigned all around. Years of painful negotiations ensued, during which, one dignitary at the signing ceremony remarked, stakeholders were so hostile they could not even make eye contact across the negotiating table. Last Thursday they were smiling and embracing.

The new agreements do represent major progress in that almost all the stakeholders have committed in principle to healing the Basin's wounds. However, there remain loopholes and obstacles.

The agreements won't be implemented unless Congress passes enabling legislation. There will also be a new round of scientific studies and analyses of how various existing environmental laws affect the agreements. The dam removals won't happen until 2020 at the earliest, and PacifiCorp is allowed to outsource its potential liabilities to something called the Dam Removal Entity (apparently an incarnation of The Taxpayer).

And not everyone is on board. While the Karuk, Klamath and Yurok tribes signed the agreements, the Hoopa Tribe did not.  A Hoopa press release cited concerns not only about a lack of transparency and peer-reviewed science to support assumptions about water availability and quality, but about provisions in the agreement that may result in diminution of rights for tribes not party to the agreement. Several environmental groups also stayed on the sidelines, including Friends of the River, Oregon Wild and the Siskiyou Land Conservancy; American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, and several other environmental groups endorsed the pacts.

A major threat to the agreements is the length of the wait for concrete action. Given the macabre political antics in Washington, D.C., the possibility of mood swings among voters, and uncertain economic and climatic conditions, it may be difficult to get the necessary legislation through Congress. But it's still heartening to see disparate groups – more than 50 in all – willing to compromise some of their insular interests for the benefit of the ecosystem they all depend on.

Valerie Brown writes about the environment, environmental health, climate, and related issues from her base in Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley.