Water’s for fighting, and if you’re going to fight and win, you need strategy. A few strategies famously used over the millennia have been “divide and conquer” and the old “Trojan horse” trick.
Some farmers and ranchers in Northern California and southern Oregon think that both strategies are being used against them in the Klamath River watershed. In 2002, a federal judge granted the Klamath Tribes senior water rights in the Klamath Basin. Now, at any time, the tribes could “call” their water rights and completely deny water from farmers and ranchers in the basin. A tenuous agreement was reached in 2010 that, for now, provides basin producers with enough water to keep some of them in business.
But for the agreement to stick, the tribes, environmental groups, and commercial fishermen negotiating with farmers and ranchers have demands. In the name of protecting the federally listed Coho salmon and suckerfish, they are demanding that: four significant dams be removed downstream from the basin; hundreds of miles of riparian areas be fenced throughout the entire watershed; farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin give up 30,000 acre-feet of water rights (being used to irrigate 18,000 acres); and farmers and ranchers drop their legal challenge of the tribes’ water rights.
Also necessary to finalize the agreement is federal legislation. Farmers and ranchers in the basin know they need some kind of resolution in order to avoid what happened in 2001—a complete water shut-off. But other producers and communities downstream from the dams are hollering “whoa!” So far, their opposition has been enough to stop the legislation pending in the Senate that would finalize the agreement.
ESA at work once again
Historically, the area’s farming and ranching community has stood strong together. But according to Klamath County Commissioner Tom Mallams, who testified before the U.S. Senate in 2013, “Our community has been divided by the age old method of ‘divide and conquer.’” It would seem that in the Klamath Basin, as in so many examples across the country, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is being wielded to control resources—and farming and ranching communities at opposite ends of the Klamath watershed are being placed in a position of opposition to one another.
How? Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry may have summarized it best when he stated, “We have successfully used regulatory tools like the Endangered Species Act… and have had some important victories in court.” He continued, “We have also learned that winning one battle does not end a long-lasting war…”
When “at war,” negotiations are sometimes necessary—and there can be casualties. But U.S. Representative Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) has warned that Klamath Basin farmers’ and ranchers’ negotiations may not end up as fruitful as they hope.
“There’s no guarantee, if this ‘agreement’ ever gets codified by law, that someone else won’t come along and sue to deny the rest of farmers’ and ranchers’ needed water,” LaMalfa told WLJ.
“The Klamath Basin has an existing water shortage problem. Removing the dams downstream does nothing to change that. Neither will any other provisions of the ‘agreement.’ So when, lo and behold, there’s still a water problem for endangered fish, guess who’s going to be targeted to give up their water? The same farmers and ranchers who are now trying to negotiate a deal they think they can live with.”
Siskiyou County Supervisor Michael Kobseff told WLJ that litigation may not be the only way for such losses to occur. The legislative language offered this session by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) would empower the stakeholders of the agreement to amend it at any time in the future without congressional approval. “Thus setting up an unelected regional form of government in the Klamath Basin,” he said.
In other words, these elected officials say, the tentative agreement may be little more than a Trojan horse—a way to get federal legislation through to tear out the dams, with potential loss of all benefit to the producers negotiating the deal.
Meanwhile, loss of the dams will be devastating, according to local sources.
In 2013, Siskiyou County Supervisor Kobseff testified before a U.S. Senate committee regarding the implications of the dam removals.
Siskiyou is home to approximately 150 miles of the Klamath River and three of the four dams that are proposed for removal. “Except for a minority of agricultural interests receiving promises of water,” he stated, “the majority of agriculture and ranchers will suffer significant losses.”
Kobseff said loss of the dams meant more than loss of water storage. Eighty percent of Siskiyou County residents had earlier voted to oppose the removal of the dams. They provide hydropower to some 70,000 residents. No replacement source of power has been identified. The dams also serve to control catastrophic floods, have “transformed former marginal habitat into world-class fisheries,” provide water for fish in times of drought, improve water quality generally by providing a settlement basin for naturally occurring toxins, and cool the warm water coming in from the upper high desert basin in Oregon. The Iron Gate dam makes possible a fish hatchery that produces over six million salmon smolts annually, Kobseff added.
Dam removal, Kobseff noted, would prove catastrophic—not just because of the loss of the above functions, but because the removals would release nearly 20 million cubic yards of sediment loaded with toxic minerals.
“This release may result in massive destruction of the ecosystem… Although on considerably smaller scales, one need only look to the damage done by the removal of other dams (Elwha, Condit, Gold Ray, Savage Rapids) to see the destructive consequences of dam removal,” Kobseff testified.
The expected damage to the environment and economy, Kobseff explained, was rationalized on the basis that salmon will have access to approximately 35 miles of what he called “historically inconsistent and marginal habitat.”
He described the federal analysis of the dam removal proposal as “replete with examples of bias, distortion, and circumvention of legal, scientific, and scholarly standards…” He said the federal government incorrectly cited “marked declines” of fish populations in recent years. The government’s projection of economic effects was also grossly miscalculated, he said. The report cited “non-use values” amounting to $98 billion.
“Without these phantom benefits,” Kobseff asserted, “the proposal for full facilities removal has negative economic results.”
Dam removal trend?
Will dam removals on the Klamath incite a trend toward dam removal westwide? Farmers and ranchers negotiating the agreement in the Klamath Basin have been careful to point out there are special circumstances surrounding the possible dam removals in this case. But others are concerned that this dam removal, if implemented, could set a precedent. This could mean a lot to residents in the vicinity of the Grand Coulee dam and four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington, which are reportedly in the crosshairs. Of the Snake River dam removals, a representative of Save our Wild Salmon Coalition last year stated, “Of course [dam removal] is best for the salmon.”
There are many more dams being targeted across the country—just look up “dam removal” on Wikipedia. Is the Klamath Basin a special exception, or will it become the rule? Will the ESA continue to be used as “a tool,” as the Klamath Tribes spokesman put it, and will the “long-lasting war” continue? These are the questions that the agricultural community, local governments, and U.S. Congress must consider as they move forward with Klamath Basin negotiations. — Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent