Basin leaders applaud progress for peace along the Klamath River, but there's unease unfolding behind the pomp and circumstance on the surface.
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 persistent concerns from the basin’s tribes and conservation groups.
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.
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