In 2001, farmers in the Klamath Basin marched against the federal government when it withheld irrigation water to protect endangered salmon and suckers (HCN, 8/13/01: No refuge in the Klamath Basin). But ultimately the fish may not be to blame if the crops in this arid landscape dry up.
In January, the
power company PacifiCorp notified state officials of the expiration
of a deal that for decades has supplied farmers on the
Oregon-California line with some of the cheapest electricity
around. It means that the owners of about 1,300 farms, most in
Oregon, could be socked next year with more than tenfold rate
"The profitability of growing many crops is
pretty thin already," says farmer Lynn Long, who leads a group
opposing the rate change. "This would push people over the edge."
Environmental groups, meanwhile, see the looming rate
increases as a free-market tool that will achieve what they have
not been able to: eliminate marginal farms and free up water for
fish and birds.
"When this (marked-down rate) goes away,
it’s going to be a big step in bringing everything back into
balance," says Jim McCarthy of the Oregon Natural Resources
But higher rates may not be all good for the
environment, say farmers and others: New sprinkler systems
underwritten with some $50 million in federal aid to promote water
conservation might become unusable because of high pumping costs.
Wells supplying a government-funded "water bank" that provides
extra water for wildlife — but depresses the water table
— would become much more expensive to operate. And farmers
might return to flood irrigation, which requires less pumping but
consumes more water — potentially compounding the irrigation
shortages that reached a breaking point in 2001.