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Klamath 'Island of Hope' an Illusion
By Felice Pace, Capital Press Editorial
September 28, 2007

The Klamath Water Users Association, Karuk Tribe and Yurok Tribe would like you to believe that a new era of trust and cooperation has emerged in the Klamath River Basin.

Apparently they've convinced Capital Press editors. The lead Capital Press editorial in the Aug. 24 edition, "Island of hope develops in Klamath Basin," positively gushes about a "broader settlement, including fish survival and providing adequate irrigation water," which has been under negotiation among 26 organizations for the past year or so.

But buying into the broader settlement at this stage is a bit like buying the proverbial pig in a poke. The negotiations are secret and no one is talking about what is actually in a settlement which, while incomplete, is already being promoted as the answer to all the Klamath's problems.

Doesn't it seem a bit strange to be selling an agreement so heavily before it has even been drafted?

Instead of providing details of what is being proposed, we are told by Klamath Water Users Association and Yurok Tribe spokespersons that we should trust them because they are "working hard." Please forgive this basin resident, but I prefer to look at actions rather than words.

When we do look beyond the nice-sounding words the picture we see is quite different. Take, for example, the farm bill which recently passed the House of Representatives. As that bill made its way through subcommittees and the full Agriculture Committee to passage, a change was made to the language pertaining to the EQIP Conservation Program.

Language which - in exchange for government funding - would have required on-farm water conservation projects to save a minimum of 15 percent of that farm's consumptive use of water was changed.

The new language will make it possible to use taxpayer money to fund on-farm projects under EQIP if they "result in a minimum reduction ... in the total consumptive use of ground water or surface water." It creates water conservation program, which by law minimizes water savings - so this is why they liken making laws to making sausage.

What does this have to do with the Klamath?

EQIP is the program under which $50 million was expended under the 2002 Farm Bill to improve on-farm water conservation in the Klamath River Basin.

As stream flows dwindle in this drought year, fishermen and restorationists are wondering where the water saved by those irrigation improvements can be found. On the Scott and Shasta rivers, for example, flows have dwindled to less than 11 and 18 cubic feet per second respectively. That is enough water to fill two or three irrigation ditches but far less than the flow needed to allow salmon to access prime spawning grounds.

Those familiar with 2002 Farm Bill details know that EQIP language was inserted into that bill, which made it possible for irrigators in the Klamath River Basin - including the Shasta and Scott as well as the Klamath Project and other "Upper Basin" water users - to make improvements in their irrigation systems, which actually resulted in more rather than less water use during the key late summer and fall period when, in the Klamath as in most other western river systems, demand for water exceeds supply.

And while specifics of EQIP projects are protected from disclosure as "trade secrets," it is believed that some Klamath Project irrigators used EQIP funding to exploit groundwater and then turned around and leased that water back to the federal government under the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Water Bank program.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, recent exploitation of groundwater for irrigation in the Klamath Project Area has lowered groundwater levels, drying up domestic and community wells. USGS says the groundwater pumping is not sustainable.

The long arm and political connections of the Klamath Water Users Association is at work in the gutting of EQIP water conservation language in the House-passed farm bill.

What does this say about the claim that irrigators and tribes negotiating a broad "Klamath Settlement" have come to care about each other's interests? Is a change from "15 percent reduction" to "minimum reduction" in on-farm water use an expression of how much Klamath Project irrigators care about fish?

It is because of actions like the gutting of Klamath EQIP that some of us have grown skeptical about the newly found trust between some of the Basin's tribes and the Klamath Water Users Association. The Klamath is increasingly looking like another Bush administration-orchestrated effort to buy off tribes with senior water rights in favor of irrigators with junior rights.

The truth is that all Klamath irrigators are not at the settlement table and only one group of irrigators representing about 40 percent of irrigation water use in the basin stands to gain from the settlement that is being negotiated.

That group is the Klamath Water Users, who have made no secret of their desire to regain their position as an irrigation elite that enjoys "water supply certainty" and a "power subsidy" while the other 60 percent of irrigators have to play - and pay - by other rules.

Deals forged in secret usually create winners and losers as well as unforeseen consequences. The Klamath deal is no different. The insistence on secrecy was a warning light and the farm bill's EQIP shenanigans give the lie to the "cumbia" rhetoric issuing from Klamath Water Users and a minority of the basin's tribes.

The people of the Klamath have a message for the secret dealmakers: Cut the rhetoric and come out into the light of day. A just and equitable Klamath solution will be forged democratically and in the open with all interests at the table and with the people on guard against special interest shenanigans.

Felice Pace lives in the Klamath River Basin and has been involved in salmon and water issues.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and as defined under the provisions of "fair use", any copyrighted material herein is distributed without profit or payment for non-profit research and for educational use by our membership.