Amendment threatens local solutions for the Klamath Basin

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed an amendment that threatens hundreds of small family farms in the Klamath River Basin — farms that contribute to the Medford economy and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Oregon every year.

At the very time that local farmers need more certainty of water delivery, this amendment could make many of them more vulnerable because it would de-fund an essential component of a locally developed water allocation process that is strongly supported by farmers, ranchers, tribes, conservation groups and the governments of Oregon and California, and is intended to settle long-standing water issues.

Supporters of the amendment want to take control away from the local community and put it in the hands of Washington, D.C. We believe that in the end this maneuver will not be successful, but for now is a distraction from moving toward the concrete solutions that basin farmers and ranchers need. Many families may not be able to pay the mortgage if this summer is like the last.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., this amendment earned the label "reckless" by the Sacramento Bee because, the newspaper said, amendment supporters reject the 21st-century reality that "managing water supply involves difficult trade-offs among a variety of demands."

The amendment is irresponsible because it not only de-funds an important environmental impact statement about dam removal, but could also lead to higher utility rates for PacifiCorp customers by ignoring a recent recommendation by the Oregon Public Utilities Commission. The PUC studied various options and along with PacifiCorp (the owner of the dams) has determined that ratepayers would save millions of dollars if the dams were removed because the costs to upgrade and repair them in order to relicense would be astronomical.

Most of Oregon's congressional representatives voted against the amendment. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., supported the amendment because he said the locally developed solution would not find favor in the politicized committee run by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and McClintock. He did so while acknowledging that the water wars have been devastating to the Klamath and that the "burden" of solving future chaos in the basin would now reside with a Washington, D.C.-based Natural Resources Committee. To date, no one from Washington, D.C., has come up with any practical suggestions for how to sustain the basin's agricultural and commercial fishing economies, and we think it's time to let locals chart their own future.

For years, water users in the Klamath Basin were told that before they approached Congress for help, they needed to bring something to the table that integrated and resolved their issues. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement does just that. It is the product of years of hard work and compromise intended to balance healthy rivers with strong rural economies. The KBRA is the voice of those who are directly affected by the water problems in the Klamath.

Natural resource conflict in the Klamath Basin can cost Oregon's economy hundreds of millions of dollars a year, not to mention the uncounted costs of degraded tribal cultures and economies and the loss to sportsmen of widely cherished traditions related to hunting and fishing. Just this past summer, new relationships and good-faith cooperation among basin players helped lessen the impacts of what could have been a devastating water shortage in the upper basin. Even more is possible from the KBRA if it receives the support it needs and the study it deserves.

But at the moment, local people who have invested years to put together a blueprint for conservation and natural resource prosperity can only rely on Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein — to put the settlement process back on track.

Becky Hyde of Beatty is a founding member of PROSPER, or Partnership to Restore Stability and Prosperity to the Region. This opinion is also signed by PROSPER founders Steve Kandra of Merrill and Jeff Mitchell of Chiloquin.

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