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Klamath Basin Water Settlement Still Uncertain As Task Force Wraps

The Klamath Basin task force wraps up meetings this week. It's unclear whether a water settlement between upper Basin irrigators and the Klamath Tribes will be reached.

The Klamath Basin task force wraps up meetings this week. It's unclear whether a water settlement between upper Basin irrigators and the Klamath Tribes will be reached.

Amelia Templeton

With just a few days left before the final session of the Klamath Basin task force, a few loose ends remain.

It’s still unclear whether a water settlement between upper Basin irrigators and the Klamath Tribes will be reached.

The Klamath Project will likely receive cheaper federal power through the Bonneville Power Administration, though off-project eligibility and PacifiCorp distribution remain uncertain.

And perhaps the largest question is the price tag — whether sufficient cuts can be found within regional water settlement agreements as requested by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Wyden’s chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee situates him well to design and pursue eventual legislation, if the senator deems it palatable for a budget-conscious Congress.

The task force, helmed by Richard Whitman, the governor’s natural resources adviser, has already pushed back Wyden’s deadline for concluding the task force once before.

In the meantime, subgroups continue meeting to address issues of water, power and costs in advance of the Klamath Basin task force’s final meeting, which will be from 1 to 5 p.m. Thursday at Oregon Institute of Technology’s Mazama Room.

Headed by Ed Sheets, who worked for years on framing regional water settlements, the power subcommittee is tasked with providing irrigation power supplies to the Klamath Basin in an affordable and sustainable manner.

Sheets has said power is a key element for water pumping, both for irrigators and the national wildlife refuges.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which provides water to Klamath Project irrigators, are seeking a block of wholesale power from the Bonneville Power Administration for Oregon customers.

California customers are outside BPA’s delivery range, and instead could be served through the Western Area Power Administration.

Sheets said power users from the Klamath Project could access reduced power rates without legislation, though upper Basin irrigators would have to wait for federal legislation. Oct. 1, 2015, is the target date for BPA power to get to Project users, Sheets said.

A lingering issue has been whether upper Basin irrigators could access the same power rates.

Sheets said 70 percent of BPA customers would have to agree to extend the lowest power rates to upper Basin irrigators represented by the settlement agreements.

Another issue is the delivery of power through PacifiCorp’s power lines.

Greg Addington, executive director of Klamath Water Users Association, said PacifiCorp owns the distribution network so it has to be a partner in any energy deal.

And due to the recent interest by the city of Klamath Falls and Klamath County in separating from PacifiCorp and forming utility districts, Addington said it might become problematic.

“They’re reluctant to talk to us about this agreement while they’re dealing with the city of Klamath Falls,” Addington said. “I think they might want us to be on their side on this issue but it’s not our fight. It does feel a little bit like the rug’s being pulled out from under us when they start bringing up things that are extraneous.”

PacifiCorp spokesman Bob Gravely countered by saying “all of the work that needs to happen to make the federal power program work is still progressing.”

And yet, Gravely added “if we are on the one hand defending our local business against the prospect of local government takeover, it’s awkward for us at the same time to be promoting the transfer of some customers to federal power.”

Water issues

Richard Whitman, the governor’s natural resources adviser, is overseeing the water subcommittee, which, given private sessions and confidentiality agreements between ranchers and the Klamath Tribes, is difficult to report on.

Yet in a drought year when the majority of the upper Basin saw their irrigation water shut off, they also have the most to talk about if a Basin-wide solution is to be reached.

“I continue to be encouraged by how inclusive the process is of off-project irrigators. There’s a lot of landowners in the room,” said Becky Hyde, a Sprague River rancher and representative of the Upper Klamath Water Users Association.

Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said he was feeling positive about their progress. “We’re having good communication and things are still positive as far as getting through these issues. I can just say that communication is going well and we’re having some success moving forward.”

Gentry said the exact timing for reaching a water settlement agreement between the tribes and the upper Basin remains unclear. “I feel things are positive and I’m hopeful we’ll be able to move forward with something in the near future.”

Lowering costs

Ed Sheets also coordinates the subcommittee on lowering costs of the Klamath Basin’s regional water settlement agreements.

Sheets is well-versed in budgetary issues, having helped lower an initial KBRA price tag of nearly $1 billion to the more recent $550 million project cost.

Nevertheless, Sen. Wyden has requested a price tag lowered by a quarter to a third, which has been previously criticized by Klamath Tribes’ Gentry as lowering the odds of accomplishing Basin-wide restoration goals.

“Our members voted for the KBRA and the budget package as is, and anything that would affect that significantly is difficult for us,” Gentry said.

Glen Spain represents two fishing groups and remains hopeful about the budget-trimming process.

“We’re doing everything we can, looking under every rock,” Spain said. “Sixty percent or more of KBRA budget items are already authorized as standard restoration efforts and the next effort is appropriation, using existing funds more efficiently.”

Spain expects some concrete budget recommendations by Thursday’s meeting, though he says some additional time for the task force to compile a final report will be needed.

“There will be some ongoing conversations on specific items. The intent is for (Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee) staff to take what’s recommended and turn that into legislation in short order,” Spain said.

“When the stars line up properly, Congress can move rapidly and we’re working hard to make sure all the questions are answered and we have a product that makes good sense.”

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