U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden revealed relatively little about how he plans to approach the conflict over water allocation in the Klamath Basin in a round-table today before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
One message did come across clearly during the hearing: Wyden believes the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, an $800 million settlement and restoration plan signed by tribes, fisherman, and farmers, is too expensive for congress.
“After considerable thought, I have concluded that the KBRA, and essentially what has been agreed to at this point, is simply unaffordable in the current budget environment. My message on this point is working together in good faith, there’s got to be a way to accomplish the agreement’s objectives with a lower price tag,” Wyden said early in the hearing.
The Klamath Tribes hold senior water rights to the headwaters of the Klamath river. In the KBRA the tribes agreed provide a steady supply of water to potato and onion and mint farmers who all share a federal irrigation system in exchange for big investments in habitat restoration and fisheries management.
The deal calls for $800 million of federal spending over about 15 years. It would require federal legislation to authorize spending and to approve the removal of four dams on the Klamath River owned by power company PacifiCorp. The cost of dam removal is not part of the $800 million projected cost of the KBRA, and would instead be funded by Pacificorp ratepayers and a California water bond.
Wyden told the groups the river restoration deal would be more politically feasible if they could the budget by a third.
Opponents of the KBRA - including environmental groups on the left and ranchers and tea party activists on the right - have long criticized the cost of implementing the settlement, and have suggested there are less expensive options for restoring the river and resolving the conflict.
Environmental groups including Water Watch and Oregon Wild have suggested downsizing the amount of irrigated agriculture in the basin and ending farm leases in the Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuges.
During the Senate Hearing, Klamath County Commissioner and rancher Tom Mallams suggested building more water storage in the Upper Basin as an alternative to the KBRA.
Richard Whitman, Natural Resources Advisor to Governor John Kitzhaber, cautioned that new water storage could be prohibitively expensive.
Craig Tucker, a spokesman for the Karuk Tribe, says proponents of the KBRA haven’t done a good enough job explaining the costs. Tucker says that 262 million of the total price tag is funding federal agencies will likely spend on fish management and water quality problems in the Klamath, whether or not the KBRA is implemented. 536 million would be new spending, spread out over a 15 period.
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