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A new Klamath water deal emerges, but unease persists

Agreement picks up the pieces of the failed landmark accords.


Where the Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean, national, state and tribal leaders stood in front of a podium April 6, with the sound of crashing waves and sea lions barking in the distance. One after another, they walked across the stage to the microphone and praised the collaboration and persistence it took to tackle the decades-long controversy over water management in the Klamath Basin.

Although a broader set of Klamath deals had failed before Congress in December, this announcement signified progress for removal of the river’s four lower dams (some nearing a century old). At the ceremony, state and federal officials, and PacifiCorp, the dams’ owner, signed an accord, the Klamath Hydropower Settlement Agreement (KHSA), to begin the decommissioning process through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That process will culminate with the dams’ physical destruction, now planned for 2020.

At the meeting, some supporters of the original deals also introduced a new agreement, a side pact they’d pieced together. The Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement (KPFA) and KHSA would cover the operation and management costs of the two northernmost dams, which will remain if and when the lower four dams are removed. Those two, the Link and Keno dams, will eventually be transferred from PacifiCorp ownership to the Bureau of Reclamation. Under the new deal, basin stakeholders also agreed to share the burden of unanticipated costs associated with repopulation of fisheries and river restoration, so basin landowners and irrigators aren’t stuck with the bill.  

Despite the pomp and circumstance of the announcement, irrigators, tribes, conservation groups and politicians that High Country News interviewed for this story say there’s a slower and more fraught process unfolding behind the scenes. While the side agreement does resurrect parts of the broader pact, its opponents say it fails to promise water to any group like the original agreement did, and it doesn’t address persistant concerns from the basin’s tribes and conservation groups.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stands beside a group of Yurok Tribe women at the shoreline of the convergence of the Klamath River and the Pacific Ocean. Sec. Jewell spoke before federal, state and tribal leaders sign the Klamath Power Facilities Agreement.
Photo by Tami Heilemann, Department of the Interior.

The original Klamath Agreements, a landmark water deal negotiated for more than 11 years, were a bit like an intricate Jenga game: In 2002, more than 40 players — many of them longstanding enemies — reluctantly came together and spent more than a decade carefully building a complex and formidable tower of agreements. It balanced assurances for tribes, refuges and conservation groups while ensuring the basin’s irrigators got reliable water for their crops. But when Congress failed to sign them in December, the intricate arrangement toppled. Many of the tribes and ranchers in the basin worried the wasted effort would re-ignite the water wars that have been waged in the basin for decades.

The groups that signed the new agreement on April 6 — a smaller subsection of federal and state officials, tribes, some environmental organizations and irrigators — are picking up the pieces and regard the new pact as a way to begin to achieve what the original Klamath Agreements would have. But the path forward takes a more “piecemeal approach,” says Greg Addington, the former head and now advisor for the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents irrigators. “(The KPFA) isn’t a great agreement for us. It’s not like we’re getting much, but it keeps us from getting hurt,” he says. “It allows us to keep moving forward instead of taking a step back to where we were 10 years ago.”

Some groups say the new agreement isn’t on the right track. Jim McCarthy, a spokesman from WaterWatch, an Oregon conservation group, says it “is another water deal that is less about water and more about giving irrigators what they want — not what they need."

The new deal appears to have the support of the Klamath, Karuk and Yurok tribes, whose leaders spoke alongside Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the California and Oregon governors at the event on Wednesday. Opponents of the Klamath negotiations say overall, the water deals haven’t taken account of all tribal interests and support has been spotty. The Yurok tribe, for example, decided not to sign the previous three-part agreement because it was taking too long to implement and the tribe felt it wasn’t in their interest to uphold a water deal in good faith. The Hoopa Valley Tribe in California, too, has remained skeptical and says crafting a water deal before dam removal is too hasty. “We do need some resolution to the water disputes,” says Tom Schlosser, an attorney for the tribe. “But we don’t want to work out a water deal until the dams are out because there’s no way to know how the water needs will change between now and then.”

So, will dam removal happen?  PacifiCorp supports it. But leaders in both Siskiyou and Klamath counties who oppose dam removal are mobilizing to stop the decommissioning of the four geriatric dams. Grace Bennett, chair of the board of supervisors for Siskiyou County, says the several million tons of sediment trapped behind the dams would negatively impact fisheries and that studies haven’t determine whether fish, including the endangered coho salmon, could survive. “If that impaired water is allowed to come into California, there is not enough water to dilute that,” Bennett says. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

Tom Mallams, a commissioner for Klamath County, Oregon, also says removals “would be a disaster” for residents, who would lose as much as a half million dollars in tax revenue from the dams.

Both counties say they are weighing legal options to halt the FERC decommissioning process, and the Klamath Irrigation District alleges the process for developing the side deal and dam removal have not been transparent and that all activities under FERC should cease until disputes are resolved. If that doesn’t happen, the group says it will sue. “The politics about this are still very nasty,” Addington says. “There’s still a lot of freaking out about tearing out infrastructure. People can’t see the forest through the trees.”

As the KPFA is written, it doesn’t require Congressional approval. Unlike the massive Jenga tower that the parties created before, the side agreement is just a small stack of blocks, a start. The new agreement lacks many essential pieces of the original agreements: Water assurances for wildlife refuges in the basin that are managed by the federal government, restoration of fish populations (many of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act) and funding for economic development for the basin’s tribes. But some parties in the basin plan hope it’s a foundation to once again craft a more comprehensive water deal. “Will there be a water deal eventually?” Addington says. “I feel optimistic about it. There is an eagerness for the parties to get back together.”  

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets