Water Bargain


It’s one more step in what’s been a long, slow trudge. But this step’s a big one.

Last Thursday, negotiators released a final agreement on water rights in the Klamath River, moving closer to a settlement of the long-running water wars in the Klamath Basin.

The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement sets the terms for divvying up water rights and restoring fisheries in the river. It joins a sister compact, the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which laid out plans to tear down four dams on the Klamath starting in 2020. That agreement was released last September.

Lest you forget the tortured history of the Klamath, the two agreements are the result of over half a decade of negotiations among almost 30 parties – irrigating farmers upstream, commercial fishermen and Indian tribes downstream, and environmental groups the length of the river, not to mention local governments, state and federal agencies and PacifiCorp, which operates the dams – and they come after decades of fights, and in the midst of ongoing lawsuits. (For a sense of the key players and some history on how these perennial antagonists found themselves at the negotiating table, see Matt Jenkins’ 2008 article, Peace on the Klamath).

This most recent chapter opened with a pair of disasters at the start of the decade. In 2001, a drought in the region led federal officials to cut off water to farmers in the Upper Klamath Basin in order to protect endangered fish downstream, devastating towns – and drying up two of the region’s major wildlife refuges (see our 2001 article, No Refuge in the Klamath Basin). The following year, Bush Administration officials (including Dick Cheney) intervened to assure the farmers received a larger allotment of water, leading to the largest fish die-off in Northwest history and then a ban on commercial fishing to try to save those that were left (see our article, Dead Fish Clog the Low-Flowing Klamath).

The Contra Costa Times summarizes the new agreement:

The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement caps the amount of water irrigators in the Upper Klamath Basin can use in a given year, providing more certainty for farms but also significantly improving conditions for fish in the river, according to supporters. The $1 billion effort would also set in motion a variety of habitat restoration projects for fish and wildlife.

Negotiators must now take the agreement back to their organizations for ratification, which seems all but assured.

Not everyone is thrilled. The Northcoast Environmental Center in Arcata, CA, dropped out of negotiations in December, arguing that under the current agreement dam removal could be delayed indefinitely. And environmental groups like Oregon Wild, which was kicked out of negotiations back in 2007, say they are concerned the agreements do not sufficiently protect the wildlife refuges, where some land is still leased for farming, or provide enough water for fish or wildlife.

There’s plenty of nitty-gritty still to come, including the thorny issue of how to fund the agreement.  Congress must provide $500 million for river restoration, and California, not exactly flush with cash, must pass a $250 million water bond. There will be future negotiations over how to handle droughts, and the details of the restoration plans.

“In many ways, completing the negotiation marks a beginning, not an end,” Petey Brucker of the Salmon River Restoration Council, told The Oregonian’s Matthew Preusch.

For extensive past coverage and commentary on the Klamath, you can check out this collection from our archives.

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