Storage projects can solve man-made droughts

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

It would appear that both the 2015 drought and the controversial Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) have come to an end.

Wet winter storms are once again dominating Oregon weather patterns. Many Oregon streams and rivers are at flood stage and beyond. Amazing videos of the Willamette, Santiam, Rogue and North Umpqua rivers attest to the incredible destructive force of the huge amounts of precious fresh water rushing out to sea.

The ground is saturated with water, and snow accumulation is now well above average across most of the state. In the Klamath River Basin, the 2015 end of year snow pack at Crater Lake is more than 50 percent above average.

Total precipitation in much of the Klamath Basin for the recently ended 2014-15 water year was actually above average, despite last year’s record low snow pack and the subsequent declaration of drought by Governor Brown. Sharp reductions in early season water deliveries to Klamath Project irrigators were caused by what appears to be grievous miscalculations in available water supply by the National Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Geological Survey.

Near normal quantities of water were being delivered to most Project irrigators by early July. The Bureau of Reclamation confirmed it had “discovered” an additional fifty thousand acre feet of “unanticipated and unallocated” water in Upper Klamath Lake by mid-August.

The early season curtailments in water deliveries did have a chilling economic effect. The promised water shortage caused many Project farmers to idle land, reduce acres cultivated and to not plant high-value crops that require more water to grow. However, most Project landowners were literally awash in irrigation water by the end of the growing season.

Much of the 50,000 acre feet of water that BOR found in Upper Klamath Lake was delivered to the previously fallowed land, or used for late fall and winter flood irrigation. About half of that irrigation water was ultimately delivered to the Tulelake and Lower Klamath wildlife refuges. Both refuges are actually located in northern California.

For the fifth consecutive year, Congress has declined to take action on the flawed and controversial KBRA. The Congressional opposition is clearly both broad and bipartisan.

Oregon’s U.S. Senators have repeatedly failed to move a bill supporting the KBRA to a Senate vote, even while their Democrat party held a majority in both chambers. House Republicans have likewise refused to consider any bill funding the KBRA, both before and during their current majorities in both chambers.

In my opinion, the KBRA has been dead on arrival in Washington D.C. for many important reasons.

The KBRA is first and foremost a dam removal agreement. All attempts to remove or alter the dam destruction provision of the settlement agreement has met fierce opposition by both the Tribes and environmental advocates.  The destruction of the four PacifiCorp-owned hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River is strongly opposed by most western Republican members of Congress.

Many members of Congress philosophically oppose the demolition of inexpensive, carbon-free hydroelectric infrastructure. Moreover, they have seen footage of the demolition of the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River and realize the destruction of the Klamath River dams would be exponentially worse.

They know at least 20 million cubic yards of potentially toxic sediment has been accumulating behind the four Klamath River Dams for more than a century. They are deeply troubled by the nearly unlimited liability that surely would result from releasing that huge plume of toxic sediment into the River.

And members of Congress are rightfully concerned regarding the untenable precedent established by what would be the largest peacetime dam removal project ever undertaken in the United States. Emboldened by the KBRA, preservationist groups are now adamantly demanding the destruction of the four lower Snake River Dams.

The KBRA continues to be extremely unpopular among most residents of the Upper Klamath River Basin. Virtually every state and county political incumbent and candidate who has supported the agreement was defeated in primary elections. The margins of those defeats have most often been by humiliating two-to-one vote counts.

Cyclical years of poor snow pack have periodically contributed to water shortages in the Upper Klamath River Basin. However, many members of Congress now realize the overarching cause of water shortages has been the repurposing of water previously stored for irrigation by state and federal governments.

Those changes in water use were created through administrative fiat by state and federal governments. The preponderance of the reallocations have been made without compensation to the landowners whose rights to use irrigation water were taken.

Government agencies have reassigned water previously stored for irrigation in Upper Klamath Lake in order to maintain minimum lake levels for the benefit of allegedly endangered sucker fish. Water previously stored for Project irrigators is also being diverted down the Klamath River, allegedly to help the threatened Coho Salmon.

These administrative takings of the use of water previously stored for irrigation are the result of the government-created Biological Opinions required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Opinions will remain in place until the ESA is either amended or repealed. The KBRA specifically rejects any action to either amend or repeal any provision of the ESA. I very much doubt if either of those actions will occur during my lifetime.

For those reasons, provisions for increased water storage were a cornerstone of the original KBRA negotiation. However, government agencies claimed that cost factors were prohibitive, while environmentalists claimed additional storage would permanently alter hydrographs and harm fragile ecosystems.  Virtually all water storage provisions were stripped out of the current version of the KBRA.

I believe the consensus of informed Project irrigators understand the KBRA will never provide certainty of water deliveries without provisions for significantly increased water storage. Apparently, many members of Congress share that belief.

The KBRA was negotiated among self-selected parties under strict and enforceable confidentiality contracts. Several state and federal agencies, as well as the Governor’s office, were deeply involved in the negotiations, including the creation of the confidentiality requirements.

Many members of Congress have rightfully expressed concern regarding how the KBRA settlement agreement was negotiated. Members of the media, the public and almost all of its elected representatives were prohibited access to the negotiations. In apparent further violation of public records laws, all accounts of those discussions remain confidential.

Moreover, one of the prices for a seat at the negotiation table was to pledge to support the entire KBRA settlement adopted by majority vote. Any public expression of dissenting opinions or written minority reports continues to be considered a breach of contract.

The only workable solution for Upper Klamath Basin irrigators is to increase water supply. Any viable water management agreement must include a substantial water storage component. The untenable alternative is to give up century-old water rights and agree to irrigate significantly less cropland.

Nearly 40 potential sites for surface water storage have previously been identified in the Upper Klamath River Basin by the Klamath County Commission and others. During the winter months, water is available for additional storage in almost all water years. Obviously, this year is no exception.

Records show that more than three quarters of a billion dollars of public funds have already been expended on “restoration” activities in the Upper Klamath River Basin. No meaningful water storage facilities have either been developed or seriously contemplated.

Meanwhile, due to the Biological Opinions and lack of adequate storage capacity, more than half a million acre feet of storable fresh water flowed through the Basin and out to sea during the recently concluded “drought” year.

Make no mistake! The ongoing reduction of water to grow crops for Upper Klamath Basin irrigators can and likely will happen to landowners in many other Oregon watersheds. Under current political conditions, enhanced water storage capacity is the only viable answer to our man-made water shortages.

It is long past time for our state and nation’s entire irrigation community to come together to demand the construction of more water storage facilities. We should accept no less from our state and federal bureaucracies.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls