More than $160 million will be headed to the Klamath Basin over the next five years, thanks to the recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act by Congress. It is likely the largest singular federal investment in the basin to date, and it could help watershed restoration efforts take a big step forward.
Signed into law by President Biden on November 15, the funding package will allocate $162 million to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specifically for “Klamath Basin restoration activities,” according to the text of the bill. That includes planning and designing projects, applying for permits, paying contractors and maintaining projects after they’re completed, among other purposes.
Those familiar with the funding say it’s a unique opportunity for the Klamath Basin to get to work on large-scale projects that measurably, positively impact water quality and species habitat.
“There’s nothing like money to bring folks together,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, which helped lead a bipartisan coalition that secured billions of dollars of investment in Western water infrastructure through this legislation.
Keppen said the funding will be huge — and the fact that so much was set aside specifically for the Klamath Basin is unique.
“To my knowledge, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single line-item go to Klamath for this amount of money,” he said. “If you look at this entire bill, there’s not a lot of places that got that specific attention.”
Also notable is the money’s flexibility — not only in the kinds of projects it can fund, but in the time USFWS has to disburse it. Whereas much of the federal COVID-19 related relief funding expired at the end of the last fiscal year, unused Klamath infrastructure money can roll over into subsequent years. Federal agencies have until mid-January to figure out exactly how they’re going to spend their windfalls.
Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) secured the funding thanks to their high-ranking positions in that legislative chamber.
“There’s no shortage of places to work on habitat restoration,” Merkley said. “The details are going to be worked out by the experts on what’s going to be most cost-effective.”
Because the agency is still in the process of coming up with a plan for how to distribute the money, USFWS was unable to provide a statement on what it may be used for and how projects will be identified. But other sources say much of it will be distributed through the Service’s Yreka office to projects up and down the watershed. Stan Swerdloff, aquatics director for the Klamath Tribes, said basin tribes, agricultural groups and other stakeholders will be looped in to inform the agency’s spending decisions in the coming weeks.
“This is a big opportunity, and I think everybody’s going to be very careful and very detail-oriented in putting the whole package together. It’s got to hit the right pressure points,” he said. “We’ve shared some of our requests with them, but nothing formal yet.”
Essentially, a plan already exists for implementing wide-scale restoration in the Klamath Basin through the Integrated Fisheries Restoration and Monitoring Plan (IFRMP), a multi-year effort that identifies key restoration priorities throughout the watershed — from recreating instream habitat for anadromous fish in the Lower Basin to reducing nutrient loading in the Upper Basin.
“We have a pretty good understanding of what works and a pretty good understanding of where it needs to be done,” said Clayton Creager, watershed stewardship coordinator for California’s North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. “We’ve learned a lot from the investments we’ve already made.”
However, because the infrastructure funding is several hundred million dollars less than the total estimated cost of implementing the IFRMP, stakeholders and federal agencies must further prioritize which projects can help them get the most bang for their buck and put them on a path toward completing the rest of their restoration goals. It remains to be seen whether small amounts of money will go out to a variety of projects throughout the basin, or whether stakeholders will target a specific type of activity or area.
Swerdloff said he hopes significant funding will go to floodplain reconnection and de-channelization of the Sprague River, which drives the majority of the phosphorus loading into Upper Klamath Lake. If projects can help slow water down and allow sediment to settle out on the Sprague’s historic floodplain, it could make life easier for endangered C’waam and Koptu and allow more flexibility for downstream water allocations in the future. However, that requires voluntary cooperation from landowners along the tributary in addition to funding.
Sources said a big chunk of the money will help fund the expansion of Gone Fishing, the Service’s sucker hatchery operation on Lower Klamath Lake Road, though USFWS did not confirm that.
Keppen said it would be wise to identify projects that all groups can agree on, like rehabilitating the hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in the basin that burned this summer and threaten to wash debris and sediment into streams over the coming months. The Klamath Tribes, Trout Unlimited, USFWS and other restoration-focused groups are already working with federal agencies to mitigate for the influx of eroded nutrients expected to flow from the Bootleg Fire scar into Upper Klamath Lake.
“That’s an area we should all be working on together, because we all benefit from an improved watershed,” Keppen said. “And, in fact, if we don’t get on it in a concerted way, we’re going to have some problems. We have an opportunity to start to rebuild some of these watersheds and get them to function as watersheds.”
Other pots of money established by the $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill could also lend themselves to solving Klamath issues, even though they weren’t earmarked specifically for the basin.
The Bureau of Reclamation, for example, received $8.3 billion to rehabilitate aging infrastructure in its water projects, implement recycling and reuse initiatives, establish surface and groundwater storage and conveyance infrastructure, implement multi-benefit irrigation activities and restore ecosystems. Klamath Project irrigators and irrigation districts could use that money to modernize their systems and reduce water demand.
There are also billions of dollars set aside in the bill for drinking water programs, which could combine with state and local money to address the nearly 300 domestic wells that dried up in Klamath County this summer. Tribes across the U.S. can also access $86 million for projects related to climate resilience and adaptation, and federal agencies will be authorized to spend more than $2 billion on forest restoration over the next five years.
In a sense, Keppen said the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act broadens the definition of what the federal government would typically consider “infrastructure.” Especially in the Klamath Basin, where few viable options exist to build traditional, Reclamation-era reservoirs and pipes, the feds are giving increased attention to reviving the watershed’s natural ability to store, clean and release water.
“This isn’t just dams and canals — it’s all of the above, including substantial dollars for ecosystem projects,” Keppen said. “We’re never going to have a better chance to tackle the water situation than we do now.”
While $162 million isn’t enough to solve the Klamath Basin’s water woes, some said the money could lay out a sort of proving ground for whether the watershed can come together and make positive change. It’s an opportunity to show the federal government that, despite years of crisis and tension, there’s still a desire among stakeholders to collaborate on solutions.
“These dollars, if they’re used in the right way, could generate confidence to put more money into some sort of a long-term fix,” Keppen said.
Creager said while the money may not fund all projects on private land, it could also help create a “culture” of restoration in the basin that gets more people involved down the road. While projects with willing landowners behind them aren’t always the projects that could give biologists and engineers the most environmental bang for their buck, funding and implementing them could encourage more landowners to get on board with restoration.
“We need to demonstrate good faith that restoration practices are good for operations,” Creager said. “This is a time when we can show that we can do this together, and I think the Klamath Basin is ready. Even though we’re so polarized and so fractured, we’ve done a lot of the groundwork to help make the most effective use of this money. I think we really deserve this chance.”
Swerdloff said it’s crucial to use this money wisely, for the benefit of the Klamath’s species and communities. As far as infrastructure — both natural and human-created — is concerned, there’s no shortage of worthy places to spend it.
“We’ll see how it flows,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for the basin — let’s not squander it. Let’s get the work done.”