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Northern Calif. Water Deal Needs Speedy Nod from Congress

The Copco 1 Dam near Hornbrook, Calif., is among four to be removed on the Klamath River if Congress approves the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Copco 1 Dam near Hornbrook, Calif., is among four to be removed on the Klamath River if Congress approves the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
November 9, 2015

YREKA, Calif. - A decade of negotiations between more than 40 parties for water rights, river health and salmon survival expires at the end of December if it isn't approved by Congress. And Congress may be the biggest challenge yet for the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which covers water use in northern California and southern Oregon.

At last week's White House Tribal Nations Conference, Kathy Hill – a member of the Klamath Tribal Council who was on the negotiating team for the agreement – said she heard mixed views about the future of the agreement.

"[U.S. Interior Secretary] Sally Jewell was optimistic," said Hill. "But then another person, not with the administration, told me, 'You know, nothing's going to get through this House this year.' And that's the mood, I think maybe, in Washington, D.C."

At the conference, President Obama said he's committed to working with tribal nations to protect natural resources and honor their heritage. But Hill wonders if members of Congress unfamiliar with the years of struggle between water users in this area understand the importance of the agreement.

The Senate bill (SB 133) is stalled, and a companion House bill has yet to be introduced by Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, although he has said it's a priority.

Brian Johnson, California and Klamath director for Trout Unlimited, made the point that, if nothing else, the people representing these districts won't want to see a repeat of the "water wars" of past decades.

"We know that all four of the senators in California and Oregon support the legislation. And so, we're just hoping that they can deliver on that and get it done on this short timeline," said Johnson.

The agreement calls for removal of four older dams in the region. If it expires, however, PacifiCorp could upgrade and re-license the dams instead, passing the costs on to ratepayers in a half-dozen states.

Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, explained that for irrigators, dam removal was a major compromise.

"We shook hands on that deal and we're still committed to that outcome, if the agreement goes forward," Addington said. "We don't want to go back and do this all over again; we don't even know if we can do it all over again. We've really tried to convey that sense of urgency to Congress. Hopefully, they hear us."

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - CA