MEDFORD — A new task force created by Oregon’s congressional delegation could shape legislation addressing water crises in the Klamath Basin.
Gov. John Kitzhaber’s natural resources director told a room of diverse stakeholders Thursday in Medford that this unique opportunity may not come again if they do not take action in the next couple months.
Current drought conditions causing water shutoffs to upper Basin irrigators underscore the importance of Thursday’s meeting — the first of several leading toward recommendations expected by Sept. 10.
Ranchers, conservationists, tribal members, government agencies and power utilities shared the table, a task force formed in the wake of a committee hearing last month hosted by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Reiterating Wyden’s expectation, Richard Whitman, Kitzhaber’s natural resources policy adviser, said the task force’s scope will be limited: Solve issues of water scarcity in the upper Basin; address the affordability of power for irrigators; and reduce the federal cost for a regional water settlement agreement known as the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.
Past crises including water shutoffs to the Klamath Project, fish kills in the Klamath River and the closure of fisheries throughout much of the West Coast upped the ante for the KBRA. A related settlement calls for the removal of four hydroelectric dams owned and operated by PacifiCorp on the Klamath River.
The vastly differing priorities of task force members led Whitman and others to remind the group that the meetings are not meant as a referendum on the KBRA, rather as a way to improve conditions Basin-wide in a year when the impacts of scarce water resources are already being felt.
“Each and every person in this room can make a difference,” said Becky Hyde, representative of Upper Klamath Water Users Association, and a rancher whose water was recently shut off. “It’s our job to get this thing over the top.”
The first year of enforceable state water rights has led to many dry spigots in the upper Basin after the Klamath Tribes and Klamath Project irrigators made calls for water, guaranteeing an allocation of water for the two groups found to have senior priority dates through the multi-decade adjudication process.
Phil Ward, director of Oregon Water Resources Department, told the group how water regulation and some rains in late June kept more water in the Klamath River system; and yet, a severe drought has kept the area well below normal.
Other parties pointed out how the regional water crisis is trickling downstream. Jim McCarthy from WaterWatch of Oregon said the wildlife refuge at Lower Klamath Lake has gone dry.
Conservation director of Oregon Wild Steve Pedery called for a greater emphasis on lessening water demand and prioritizing water for the refuges.
Hoopa Valley Tribe vice-chairman Ryan Jackson said insufficient flows in the lower Klamath River are causing the death of juvenile salmon and forcing the early release of water from the tributary Trinity River, where their tribal fisheries are located.
The Hoopa, Waterwatch and Oregon Wild are examples of nonsignatories to the water settlement agreements, who, on Thursday, expressed their desire for better environmental results than those outlined in the KBRA.
Another task force member critical of the KBRA is Roger Nicholson, a rancher representing two upper Basin groups. “We’d like assurances for both amount of water and that there will not be shutoffs in future years,” said Nicholson, who also is asking for guaranteed power rates equal to those of Klamath Project irrigators.
Glen Spain represents fisheries groups and was highly involved in the original KBRA negotiations. He said water decisions affect not only the upper and lower Klamath Basin and the wildlife refuges, but the entire Pacific Coast. “Everything is interrelated,” he said.
“The solution relies on all of us working together,” added Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes. “We don’t want to miss this opportunity.”
Never before has a group been convened by both Oregon senators and Congressman Greg Walden, R-Ore., along with congressional delegates from California, a state containing much of the Klamath Project and the lower Klamath River.
Richard Whitman called for meetings every three weeks until the task force’s September deadline; the next will be Aug. 1 in Klamath Falls, time and place to be announced.
Between now and then, subgroups will meet to discuss issues of power, upper Basin water management and trimming federal costs. Upcoming meetings will feature subgroup presentations in order to develop specific recommendations.
Whitman closed Thursday’s meeting by thanking the group for their “good faith,” and “for coming to the table.”