Subscribe Today! Please read: Readers of local content on the Herald and News website – heraldandnews.com – will require a subscription beginning today. For the first few months, non-subscribers will still be able to view 10 articles for free. If you are not already a subscriber, now is a great time to join for as little as $10/month!
Don Gentry

Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry speaks to Gov. Kate Brown March 13 before the signing of an executive order declaring a drought in Klamath County in this file photo.

The Klamath Tribes believe the federal government has taken a “giant step backwards” in the road to a comprehensive, long-term agreement aiming to solve water conflicts in the Basin.

That’s because the U.S. government rolled back a federal program in its fifth year of providing $500,000 for a study aimed at testing water quality in Upper Klamath Lake. The decision came from the desk of U.S. Department of the Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke.

In an email obtained by H&N from the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Basin Area Office Manager Jeff Nettleton to the Klamath Tribes, Nettleton cited budget cuts as a main reason for the rollback of the funding.

Nettleton said the Reclamation office has been told it could see potential cuts to a portion of its budget in 2019 and 2020 of between 13 and 20 percent.

Due to the rapidly approaching end of the 2018 Federal Fiscal Year (Sept. 30), Nettleton said Reclamation has to reprogram the funds that would have been committed to this year’s agreement to other activities to avoid losing those funds.

“...we will work closely with the Klamath Tribes to close out the current agreement and evaluate the possibilities for future funding of the key activities under the agreement, but that future is uncertain due to budget cuts and other issues,” Nettleton said in the email, dated Aug. 20.

Mikkelsen trip canceled

“It’s like a change in direction,” said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, at his office in Chiloquin. “You’re just all of a sudden told, we’re not going to give you that fifth year of funding.”

Meanwhile, Alan Mikkelsen, Zinke’s advisor on western water and resources, who is tasked with mediating talks with the tribes and both on-and off-Project irrigators, has canceled his visit this week. Mikkelsen has visited the Basin several times speaking to the variety of stakeholders in the water issue. He had planned to visit the Basin this week.

An email to the H&N Monday morning from an aide said he could not make the trip this week for reasons unknown as of press time. Calls to Mikkelsen by the H&N were not immediately returned as of press time.

‘No flexibility for talks’

Due to concerns on the status of endangered shortnose and Lost River sucker and the decision to roll back funds, the Klamath Tribes stated in a press release last week there is now no flexibility to even consider water allocation negotiations until significant progress is made on improving water quality in Upper Klamath Lake.

“The Tribes believe that the declining health of the lake and surrounding ecosystem is a community issue, one that can be solved with local collaboration to the benefit of it all,” Gentry said in the news release.

“We stand ready for further collaboration with our Basin neighbors but do not see a way forward to even begin discussions with our tribal membership about water allocation agreements until we see measurable progress towards clean water and harvestable levels of C’waam and Koptu,” Gentry said.

“There is a basic level of trust needed that is just not there right now as it was in the recent past when the Tribes and a broad range of Basin stakeholders supported the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), which Congress failed to approve, and the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement (UKBCA).”

Political pressure

In a Sept. 5 letter from U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Democrats, to Sec. Zinke, the senators jointly stated, “Any progress on water challenges in the Klamath Basin, either in the short or long term, will be contingent on the willingness stakeholders to trust one another. The decision to reprogram these funds at the eleventh hour has the appearance of an overtly political decision that will undermine efforts to reach a long-term solution in the Klamath Basin.”

“In what can only be described as a giant step backwards, the federal government recently pulled funding for critical water research that could help us understand how to make the lake safer for people, fish, birds, and other wildlife,” Gentry in the release.

Gentry believes the lack of funding for the study of improving water quality is hampering progress on reducing the flow of nutrients into the lake.

The Tribes have been working with the Department of Agriculture, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and local landowners to reduce nutrients flowing into the lake, Gentry said.