MEDFORD, Ore. — One of the nation’s most ambitious river restoration and dam removal proposals is set to expire at the end of the year, unless the tribes, farmers, and fishers that brokered the deal can agree on an extension.
When the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement was inked more than two years ago, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California declared: “I can see already that the salmon fish is screaming, ‘I’ll be back.’”
That declaration may have been premature. The restoration deal requires federal funding — to the tune of $800 million over a period of 15 years — and congressional authorization allowing the feds to take over ownership of four PacifiCorp dams in preparation for removing them.
Two years later, Congress has yet to authorize the deal.
The agreement settled decades of lawsuits over water rights in the basin on the Oregon-California border. It won support from tribes, commercial fishers, and some conservation groups because it set the stage for dam removal. A large group of farmers who are part of a federal irrigation project in the Klamath Basin signed on, too, because it provided them with a predictable water supply.
Other farmers and ranchers have criticized the deal for lack of transparency. They say it fails to guarantee a water supply for farmers in the eastern reaches of the basin, and the dam removal plan. Several environmental groups have criticized it for leaving too little water in the Klamath River for salmon during dry years.
Now the landmark restoration deal faces a new hurdle. It includes a deadline — the agreement dissolves unless Congress authorizes it by Dec. 31. That’s about as likely as a logger kissing a spotted owl.
In a recent meeting, the farmers, tribes, and other signatories proposed a two year extension of the deal. The Yurok Tribe, which lives and fishes along the Klamath River in the mountains of Northern California, was one of the first to approve the extension. Craig Tucker, a spokesman for the tribe, said the agreement never really had a chance.
“I think everybody in America who had some legislative priority for the past two years would say they’re very frustrated with the lack of leadership in Congress,” Tucker said. “We’ve basically been stuck with the least productive congress in a generation.”
Greg Addington, who directs the Klamath Basin Water Users Association, says about half the irigators who are party to the deal have voted to let the Klamath Basin agreement live on for two more years. Don Gentry, vice-chairman of the Klamath Tribes, says tribal members will receive a ballot referendum in December and will vote on the proposed extension.
“The agreement is the best solution to the problems we have in the basin, and the best solution that we have to achieve the Tribes’ goals for restoration of the fisheries, so I suspect our members will support it,” Gentry says.
The power company that owns the four Klamath dams slated for removal says in spite of the delay in congress, it still views removing the dams as a more cost-effective option that attempting to re-license them, and remains on track to remove the dams by 2020.
“Nothing that’s happened at this point has affected that deadline. We’re continuing to do the work that needs to be done with federal agencies to hand over the dams,” says Bob Gravely, a PacifiCorp spokesman.
If the parties can agree on extending the agreement, they say winning the support of Republican Congressman Greg Walden will be key to eventually authorizing the Klamath Basin agreement in Congress. Walden represents the Klamath Basin, part of Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District, and chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, which oversees political fund-raising and campaigns. He hasn’t taken a position on the Klamath agreement.
The Klamath Tribes’ vice-chairman Gentry said Walden is concerned about the high ticket price of the restoration agreement, and opposition to dam removal from key Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee.
“I have the sense he wants to be helpful, but I understand the difficulties he has coming out and being wholeheartedly supportive,” Gentry said.
And the restoration agreement and dam removal face an increasingly powerful political opposition in the Klamath Basin. Tom Mallams, a rancher from Beatty, Ore., is a well-known opponent of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, or KBRA. He recently won a seat as county commissioner.
“I don’t know of any elected official in the Klamath Basin that’s been voted in that supports the KBRA,” Mallams said.
Proponents of the restoration agreement insist they are willing to be patient — it took decades to implement dam-removal agreements on Washington’s Elwha and White Salmon rivers. But Mallams suggests that the delay in implementing the deal could lead to it unraveling.
“There’s a lot of opposition down on the irrigation districts,” he said. “Some of the board members have been voted out. And some of the big supporters have said, we need to look at this again.”
Correction: Nov. 26, 2012. An earlier version of this story misidentified a river in Washington state for which a dam-removal agreement was implemented. That river is the White Salmon.
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