Congress frees up $10 million for Project drought relief

The U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment of the 2000 Klamath Basin Water Supply Enhancement Act on Thursday, which will better distribute $10 million in funding every year to drought relief efforts in the Klamath Basin.

The bill passed the Senate in June and is headed to President Trump’s desk to be signed into law.

“This bill will ensure the Bureau of Reclamation has that authority for the next four years to help farmers, ranchers and water users navigate the current water year and survive the difficult water years we may face in the near future,” said Representative Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who voted for the bill in the House.

Federal lawmakers had secured the $10 million in 2018 with the passage of the Water Resources Development Act, which amended the previous Klamath Basin Water Supply Enhancement Act. But that language didn’t clarify the types of drought relief programs the money could be used for.

Currently, the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency operates programs to limit demand for project water during periods of drought, including paying irrigators to idle their land or pump groundwater. Because the 2018 amendment didn’t specify those programs, the process of funding them was convoluted and revolved around terms set by the Bureau of Reclamation.

“That situation was a lot more contorted and didn’t necessarily ensure that the DRA would be able to get all the money in a given year,” said Klamath Water Users Association executive director Paul Simmons. “[Today’s amendment] makes it much cleaner to do what these programs are intended for, which is reducing demand for Upper Klamath Lake water.”

The 2018 amendment allows the Secretary of the Interior to “plan, implement, and administer programs to align water supplies and demand for irrigation water users associated with the Klamath Project.”

This year’s bill, sponsored by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), specifies that those programs include “conservation and efficiency measures, land idling, and use of groundwater.”

“Klamath Basin irrigators have shown they’re committed to working collaboratively with the many water stakeholders in the region, and it is critical that the federal government steps up to be a strong partner to their efforts,” Merkley said. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Representative Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) also voted in favor of the bill in their respective legislative bodies.

Once the amendment is signed into law, Simmons said the DRA will know how much money they’ll have to compensate their participants at the beginning of a water year instead of at the end. Currently, irrigators are asked to sign up for the agency’s programs without knowing how much they’ll be paid.

“Good intentions of past funding to help the Klamath Irrigation Project through the shortages of water fell victim to red tape,” said Scott Seus, owner of Seus Family Farms in Tulelake. “This bill will give the needed clarification and direction to Interior to be able to use the money as was intended in the original bill.”