WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from Oregon and California introduced legislation in the Senate on Wednesday that formalizes the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement struck last month.
Under the deal, users above Upper Klamath Lake agree to reduce their water consumption, allowing an extra 30,000 acre-feet to flow into the lake. In exchange, the Klamath Tribes agree to not pre-emptively exercise their senior water rights above the lake, and local landowners will commit to helping restore plant and fish habitats in riparian areas. Downstream irrigators and ranchers, who have lesser claims to the water, stand to gain more certainty of access to water, particularly in dry years.
But critics say the deal hasn’t reduced water demand in the basin enough to solve the problem. They warn that under the legislation, salmon fisheries could face devastating die-offs, as they did in 2003 following reduced river flows caused by drought the previous year.
The Klamath Basin is 16,000 square miles that drain into the Klamath River as it flows more than 250 miles from its headwaters in Southern Oregon through Northern California to the Pacific Ocean. In March 2013, after 38 years of litigation, the Oregon Water Resources Department adjudicated the competing claims to the water.
Essentially, under the principle of first in time, first in right, the Klamath Tribes were awarded top claim on much of Upper Klamath Lake and portions of its tributaries. But should high-priority rights holders exercise a “call” on their water claim during particularly dry years, ranchers and irrigators worry they wouldn’t have enough water for their livestock and crops.
In a prepared statement, Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both D-Ore., called on Congress to enact the legislation.
“The people of the basin have set aside their differences for the benefit of the region. Congress should follow their example, pass this legislation and put the Klamath Basin on the road to recovery,” Wyden said.
Merkley added that passing the legislation is essential for the economic prosperity and environmental restoration of the Klamath Basin.
“The stakeholders of the Klamath Basin have chosen cooperation over conflict. In partnership with Senator Wyden, I’ll do all I can to implement the vision and detailed plan they have developed,” said Merkley. “The people in the Basin have done the hard part, now it’s time for the House and Senate to move forward and get this legislation passed.”
Gov. John Kitzhaber, who joined Wyden, Merkley and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, among others, at the signing of the agreement last month outside Chiloquin, praised the legislation as the “culmination of a decade-long effort” to preserve the river and the way of life of those who depend on it.
“With this legislation, Senator Wyden is honoring his commitment to work with the basin to implement a consensus-based solution to over-allocated water resources. The people of the basin are ready to move forward with the historic agreement between the Klamath Tribes and Upper Basin water users. Now it is up to Congress to take the final steps to rebuild prosperity in the region,” Kitzhaber said.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, whose district includes portions of the Klamath River Basin, did not attend the agreement signing in April.
On Wednesday, Walden spokesman Andrew Malcolm said Walden had not yet read the Senate legislation.
“He looks forward to reviewing it and learning the details,” he said.
Jim McCarthy, a spokesman for WaterWatch of Oregon, said the environmental group has serious reservations about the agreement.
“There isn’t enough water demand reduction in this agreement to solve the problems of the basin. To claim that this agreement does solve these problems with such a small amount of water reduction is just false,” he said.
In addition to the $505 million the new agreement will cost to implement, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Congress would have to appropriate an additional $250 million, McCarthy said.
By prioritizing diversions of water to various parties to the agreement over the amount of water needed by fish under the best available science, the legislation could have a devastating effect on coastal fisheries, he said.
“If you implemented the (agreement) with the flows that are produced by the modeling by the advocates for the agreements, you actually get fish-kill (level) flows during droughts on a regular basis,” he said. “If they’re serious about solving the problems of the Klamath River Basin, they need to increase the (water usage) reductions.”