Water pools behind the Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River.

Water pools behind the Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River.

Sage Van Wing / OPB

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Extreme drought in the Klamath Basin this year meant there wasn’t enough water to sustain users including tribes, farmers and wildlife refuges. The region is about to get an unprecedented surge in federal money — more than $160 million — thanks to funding in the infrastructure package. Dan Keppen is the executive director of the Family Farm Alliance. Chrysten Rivard is the Oregon director of Trout Unlimited. They join us with details.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Billions of dollars of federal infrastructure money are about to flow to the Western US for water projects; they have been described as a transformational infusion that could change the way water is used, stored, moved, recycled and desalinated. This huge pot of money is for the entire West, but there’s also a separate significant and specific allocation for the Klamath Basin. We wanted to know what all this money could mean. So we’ve invited back two people we talked to this past summer when we were in the Klamath Basin, Dan Keppen is the Executive Director of the Family Farm Alliance. Chrysten Rivard is the Oregon Director of Trout Unlimited. It’s good to have both of you back on the show.

Dan Keppen: Hey Dave.

Rivard: Hey, thanks for having us.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. Once again, Dan Keppen, first. In the big picture, the money we’re talking about is eye popping, more than $8 billion dollars for water projects in the west. Can you put this in perspective? How far back do you have to go to find a precedent for this much federal money going to water projects in the West?

Keppen: Well, I’ve been doing this work now for 30 years dealing with western water and it’s the first time I can remember this sort of federal investment being applied to the types of water infrastructure that benefit our members which are particularly farmers and ranchers, irrigation districts, rural communities in the Western United States. It’s a once in a generation funding investment by the federal government.

Miller: When you look at that, the big pot of money, because we’ll talk about the specific money for the Klamath Basin as well, but the eight plus billion dollars, what kind of lobbying was necessary to make that happen?

Keppen: Well, that’s a great question. The coalition that really helped to secure the $8.3 billion reclamation projects in the West, that effort started over a year ago. It was actually before the Presidential election in 2020, and a group of us sat down and we’re looking at various political scenarios, and one of our lobbyists in Washington was convinced that Joe Biden would become our next President and that the Democrats would control Congress, which is what happened. He said we’ve got to assume that that’s going to happen and if it does, we’ll have a political dynamic that’s very similar to what we had in 2009. When President Obama came in, Democrats controlled Congress, and we had a very massive shovel-ready stimulus package that was signed into law by President Obama. We have the same dynamic this year, which is what our lobbyists predicted. So we started working on a sort of ‘all the above’ infrastructure request intended to maximize the number of supporters that we could take back to Congress. And so by the time Congress convened in January and Joe Biden was inaugurated,

we had 230 Western organizations, not just ag and rural organizations, but also, the 17 largest municipalities in the West signed onto this letter and we advocated for sort of an ‘all the above’ approach. And when I say we, we had a coalition driving this, a steering committee driving this larger coalition was Family Farm Alliance, California Farm Bureau, Association of California Water Agencies, National Water Resource Association and then the Western Growers’ Association. And so our ask was for traditional types of infrastructure like conveyance and pumping stations and dams and aquifer storage, but also conservation programs and desal [desalination]  and recycling, watershed programs intended to bring in urban interest. And that’s what we had in place by the time the year rolled around and our lobbying efforts began in earnest, which were supplemented by individual state efforts, too. Our goal was to make sure that every member of Congress in the West understood what we’re pushing for. And ultimately, we had some champions step up in the Senate and President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law on November 15th – $8.3 billion in there for Western water.

Miller: So Chrysten Rivard, that’s the politics, people reading the leaves and seeing federal spigots were going to be turned on and they got a whole a very concerted way, figured out ways to get their projects in this massive, more than $1 trillion bill. Let’s look specifically at the money that’s going to be going to the Klamath Basin in particular. It’s actually separate from that $8 billion Dan was talking about.  $162 million dollars is going to go to projects in the Klamath Basin. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be figuring out what to do with it. What can that money be used for?

Chrysten Rivard: Well, there’s been an extensive effort over the past decade or more to look at what the needs are in the Klamath Basin, not just from a water quantity standpoint, which is of course really important. It gets at some of the funding stream Dan was talking about. But also what does it take to have a resilient ecosystem? What does it take to recover the numerous  endangered species in the Basin? And that gets at things like forest health, watershed restoration, reducing nutrient loading to Upper Klamath Lake, which requires recovering riparian systems and river systems. Then some really targeted investments for things potentially like the sucker hatchery program that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service is operating not for just artificial propagation of suckers, but because they’re so close, Lost River and Short-Nosed Suckers are so close to extinction that they’re wanting to propagate them in the near term while all of the watershed restoration activities happen to make it possible for them to survive on their own. So there’s a number of projects like that that are in the works. There’s been multi stakeholder efforts that include Tribes, Fisheries, conservation groups, members of the City of Klamath Falls and the county trying to prioritize what these needs are and how investments can make the biggest difference on the ground. So as Dan said, these are once in a generation, probably, opportunities to make huge impacts like that. Exactly which projects and priorities will be funded isn’t yet clear with that 162 million, and I would say it’s enough to make a really big difference on the landscape scale, not enough to solve all the problems in the Klamath, but certainly enough to make a big impact.

Miller: That last point is a really important one because if I have read this correctly, even if this is the single biggest targeted appropriation of federal money for the Klamath Basin, it’s not enough to fund the Basin-wide restoration efforts that have been identified by various stakeholders in various studies. So what should take precedence?

Rivard: Well, I think one of the other things that we can look at in the Klamath is all of the other funding that came out of that package, Dan spoke to the Reclamation Allocations. But the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service also received a huge plus up for their National Fish Passage Program. NOA Fisheries has new funding for Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery as well as targeted funding to work on in-stream barriers and other community-based restoration projects. The Forest Service had their Legacy Roads and Trails Program reinvigorated with $250 million. The Department of Transportation has a new Culvert Removal and Fish Passage Program that’s been funded, amongst other things. So the key piece of this is going to be all of the stakeholders coming together, figuring out exactly how to rank those priorities, but also being really thoughtful about which funding streams are available and appropriate to accomplish these different objectives.

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Miller:  If I understand what that means,... though, different agencies and different parts within those agencies, whether it’s Interior or Agriculture and then, lower down, working together to figure out the best, most effective ways to leverage all the different pots of money. Is that happening?

Rivard: It is. I think this huge influx of funding is taking a little bit of time for people to figure out which way is up and which way is down. But there’s a long history of that type of collaboration in the Klamath Basin and there have been ongoing processes. There’s something called the ‘Integrated Fisheries Restoration Monitoring Plan’, which is actually a document drafted explicitly for this purpose by all those different agencies, as well as Tribes and stakeholders, to outline what has to happen in the Basin to recover fisheries and ecosystem health. So I think we’re in a really good position to have a well-coordinated effort and I think that’s why that type of funding was able to come to the Klamath. We do have struggles around exactly how you allocate our limited water supplies, but when it comes to figuring out how to make that water go farther and how to do the most we can to recover fish, I think there’s a good opportunity to collaborate.

Miller: Dan keppen. If I understand correctly, the clock is ticking right now though, for these agencies, they had 60 days from when the President signed the bill, and as you know, that was in mid-November – so a couple of weeks now already, to put plans forward for what they’re going to do with the money. What do they have to do within 60 days of that signature, meaning by mid-January?

Keppen: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, that is correct. The legislation said that the Agencies need to prepare plans within 60 days and the Bureau of Reclamation is already working on their plan, and in fact starting Friday, they will be hosting the first of about half a dozen or so public webinars intended to get public feedback on the direction that they’re going. Reclamation has multiple programs right now that were plussed up with this legislation. When you look at the combination of the 8.3 billion and and also over two billion for Indian Water Rights Settlements, which Reclamation will administer. Reclamation for the next five years, is gonna be looking at basically administering a budget that’s twice what they would normally have. So they’re rolling, they need to have these action plans wrapped up by mid-January and that plan will really focus on the first year of spending out of the five years total that the legislation provided for.

Miller: Chrysten Rivard. One of the big things we talked about in our conversation this summer with the two of you, but collectively, in all the conversations we had in the Klamath Basin, is that so many of the groups that live in the Klamath Basin, when care about, you know, fish or birds or their family farms or ranches, they see issues about water scarcity and water allocation as existential questions to a great extent. To what extent has the announcement of this money changed the political debate or lowered the temperature of that debate?

Rivard: I don’t know that it has yet. I think there’s hope that it will. There’s just real challenges that have to be addressed and we all believe and hope that having the funding to make the kinds of system upgrades that need to happen to solve those questions will make it possible to really view opportunity in the future. But it isn’t just the Klamath that’s in this place. I think nearly two thirds of the West last year was either in extreme or exceptional drought conditions. And so while the Klamath has been struggling with these issues maybe for longer, these challenges aren’t unique to just the Klamath and figuring out how we’re going to build into a future of water security is important across the Western states,

Miller: Dan Keppen, to that end, what do you think this money could mean for other parts of Oregon – setting aside the Klamath Basin for a second?

Keppen: Yeah, well really the 8.3 billion that I’ve been focusing my remarks on, again, goes to the Bureau of Reclamation, which has jurisdiction in the 17 western states, including Oregon. And so this 8.3 billion goes for things like repairing aging dams and canals, which is a challenge throughout the West. I mean, the Bureau of Reclamation has a lot of their facilities are probably 50 years or older. The Klamath Project, which we’ve been talking about, is over 100 years old. That’s the third oldest reclamation project in the west. So there’s dollars in there for aging infrastructure. So it’s a low interest long term loan program. There’s dollars in there to build new surface and groundwater storage and conveyance facilities, which has applicability in certain parts of Oregon, lots of money in there for water conservation and recycling, and improving watershed ecosystem management and these new programs which actually Chrysten’s organization, Trout Unlimited, and Family Farm Alliance, were sort of on the same page with us in the last Congress, in getting these programs authorized... lots of applicability in rural Oregon to apply these programs which are intended to provide multiple benefits not only to agriculture but also to fish and other benefits.

Miller: Is it fair to say that, as you noted in the beginning of this year, you and many other ag groups were lobbying to get this money allocated now, what you’ve turned your attention to is talking directly to agencies to figure out the best way that you think the money that has been allocated can actually be spent?

Keppen: That’s a great point. The coalition that we developed over a year ago, that’s where we’re turning our energies towards now, that is implementation and making sure that these dollars reach their intended purpose. I mean there’s a concern right now that it could get eaten up by red tape and administration. So we’re working closely with the Bureau of Reclamation and also the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is the USDA Agency that receives $600 million to do watershed programs, many of which have proven track records, especially in central Oregon. So this is gonna be critically important because if we want to get investments like this in the future, Congress and the American public is going to want to see results. They want to see projects on the ground that are helping communities and helping the environment. And if that doesn’t happen and we lose a lot of those dollars to the red tape, it’s gonna be tough to get these sorts of investments in the future, so lots of scrutiny. Implementation by these agencies is going to be a top priority for us in the next couple of years.

Miller: Chrysten, just briefly, those are Dan’s fears about the way this money could be spent or I guess he’s saying misspent. What are your fears?

Rivard: My fears are that we simply harden existing demand as opposed to investing in projects that build a secure water future. And what that means to me is similar to what Dan was saying. We need to be working on projects that both protect and uplift ecosystems as well as provide water security for out of stream uses or out of lake uses and so making sure that we really are effective and thoughtful at this, how this money gets put on the ground and what types of infrastructure are built with it is really critical, so that 15 years from now, we aren’t having the same conversations that we’re having today about scarcity,

Miller: Chrysten Rivard and Dan Keppen, thanks very much.

Dan Keppen: Thank you.

Chrysten Rivard: Thank you

Miller: Chrysten Rivard is the Oregon Director of Trout Unlimited, Dan Keppen is the Executive Director of the Family Farm Alliance.

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