Klamath water task force meets again, with no agreement

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — Amid drought and major fires, a task force trying to pick its way through the Klamath Basin’s long water struggles has met again, with some contention and no resolution.

The task force was put together after U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, of Oregon, said local agreements reached after an irrigation shut-off in 2001 were too expensive to get through Congress.

The group includes representatives from the parties with an interest in the basin’s water: farmers, ranchers, conservationists, tribal members, government agencies and power utilities.

They have two more meetings before a September deadline to make recommendations to Wyden, and the Klamath Falls Herald and News reported a contentious tone at Thursday’s session.

Richard Whitman, natural resources adviser to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, fielded questions about the agreement over water, fish and farming reached as a result of an irrigation water shut-off in 2001.

After John Menke, of Scott Valley, Calif., called the agreement the “greatest rip-off to taxpayers ever designed,” tribal members defended their river ceremonies and the importance of restoring salmon habitat on the Klamath River, pointing to the Klamath Reclamation Project that straddles the Oregon-California border.

“The river is degraded because of a federal water project a hundred and some miles upriver,” said Mike Orcutt, director of the Hoopa Valley tribe’s fisheries department.

Drought this year has again led to an irrigation water shut-off, and a rancher whose irrigation water ended in June pleaded for conciliation.

“Let’s not meet this way for the next 15 years,” said Becky Hyde, a representative for the Upper Klamath Water Users Association. “We can continue to eat each other alive, or we can choose something different. Let’s choose something different.”

Whitman said the task force has tough going but expressed hope it would reach solutions.

“We’re facing the worst fire year in 25 years and the worst water year in probably 25 years, putting enormous pressure on all of us,” he said.

The agreements include one that would remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath. They also would help the Klamath Tribes acquire the 92,000-acre Mazama Tree Farm.

Wyden said at a hearing in June that a price tag once set at $1 billion and then lowered to $800 million to finance the agreements, including habitat restoration, was too high. He said cutting $250 million from it was a good start and suggested shedding a quarter to a third more.

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