Senate directs $10 million to help drought-stricken farmers in Klamath Basin

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday approved $10 million to help farmers in the drought-stricken Klamath Basin, an unlikely burst of good news to a struggling region that has endured a shortage of water and hope for months.

The effort was orchestrated primarily by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who found a way to add the money to a must-pass spending bill that finances President Barack Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan. It also includes $5 billion to replenish disaster aid accounts as well as money for Haitian earthquake relief and aid to U.S. allies in the fight against terror.

The almost $60 billion measure passed by a bipartisan 67-28 tally. (Merkley voted for the bill while Sen. Ron Wyden voted against it.) More than half of the funding would go to the Pentagon, mostly to support Obama’s influx of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.

While the Klamath Basin funding was a mere spec in the overall bill, it survived several near-death experiences and required last-minute lobbying from Republican Rep. Greg Walden. Walden convinced at least one Republican senator to remove his objections that would have doomed the proposal.

The money will be used to pay farmers to idle roughly 50,000 acres of crop land that cannot be used because of severe reductions in water. The payments will allow farmers to weather the season and, hopefully, recover next year, said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

“It’s a big deal,” Addington said. “The situation here is that we’re getting one-third the amount of surface water (as usual) … and we have people just trying to hold on.”

By paying farmers to take land out of production water demand will be reduced enough to allow those who remain to cultivate a crop. In all, about 70,000 acres will be idled as a result of the $10 million approved Thursday and $8 million delivered earlier by the federal government.

“I am very pleased and very tired,” Merkley said after the deal was finalized. Getting there wasn’t easy. Under Senate rules, the money could be added to the bill only if every senator agreed. At first, three Republican senators objected. Those concerns were resolved only to trigger other objections.

The Senate bill must still be reconciled with a different version of the same bill passed by the House. Oregon officials are confident, however, that the Klamath money will remain. Moreover, once the bill becomes law, the money will start flowing quickly because the apparatus for disbursing it is already in place.

Merkley enlisted the help of Majority Leader Harry Reid and his deputy Sen. Dick Durbin. Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander helped smooth Republican concerns. Strangest of all, Walden came to the Senate from the House to lobby Republicans.

The biggest barrier was finding money from another place in the federal budget to pay for the Klamath initiative that would not prompt an objection.  After several dead ends, Sen.Patty Murray, D-Wash., told Merkley about a federal program to reward local police for enforcing seatbelt laws that had a $120 million surplus.

That was the break he needed. Ten million dollars of the seatbelt money will now be used to pay farmers in Oregon.