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Camille ToutonManaging Water,  Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton visits Klamath Basin

Last week, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, who leads the federal agency that oversees water management in 17 Western states, traveled through Oregon and California, visiting projects and meeting with concerned communities.

Touton started her week in the Klamath Basin and ended it near the California-Mexico border. Thursday, she sat down for an exclusive virtual interview with the Capital Press.

The conversation centered on a major theme: The West likely isn’t getting any more water, so what is Reclamation’s plan for better managing the water the region does get?

Klamath Basin

The Klamath Basin, straddling Oregon and California, is a center of conflict where farmers and ranchers compete with tribes and fish managers for scarce water during the ongoing drought.

Reclamation manages the Klamath Project under its interim operations plan, a formula that determines how much water to allocate to irrigators versus other uses. The plan is a stand-in until Biological Opinions dictating project operations are updated, which happens about every five years. Critics say the timeline makes the plan unworkable.

The current interim plan is set to expire Sept. 30. Many farmers, ranchers and tribal members are urging Reclamation not to extend the interim operations plan and instead to do annual consultations to determine allocations, which they say would be more flexible and based on current conditions.

Touton was asked if she will consider granting this request. The commissioner declined to give a definite yes or no, but she didn’t rule out the option.

“I would just say we’re having a conversation on a lot of fronts, including, you know, what a year operation (annual consultations) would look like,” said Touton.

Asked whether she sees the Klamath Project as sustainable with its current model and scale, Touton said, “I don’t want to speculate on that.”

So, what is Touton’s game plan for the Klamath Basin? The commissioner said which tools her agency uses in the basin will depend on which tools local partners — including irrigation districts and tribes — welcome.

She said potential tools, funded in part by the bipartisan infrastructure act Congress passed last year, could include repairs to aging infrastructure, conservation efficiencies and new piping.


Some irrigation districts are interested in modernizing their systems, including replacing open canals with high-density polyethylene piping, which loses less water to evaporation.

Touton was asked if she supports piping and similar modernization. Her answer was yes, but she added the caveat that what’s right for a particular community or geographic region varies and is not solely Reclamation’s decision.

“Some tools that work in the Klamath won’t work in Yakima or won’t work for the Imperial Valley,” Touton said. “That’s why I’m traversing (the West), to just really firsthand see what our partners are seeing, listen to them and then use the tools (Reclamation has) to say, ‘This is what’s right for you.’ You want to pressurize? Great. Let’s use this program that I have. … It’s really a conversation about what works for them, not Reclamation just saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’”

Storage projects

In the past 18 months, Reclamation has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new water storage across the West — for example, by raising dams.

Some regions, however, have no new storage projects on the horizon. For example, Oregon doesn’t have any storage projects planned with Reclamation. Touton was asked why not.

“I think it goes back to what we talked about: what makes sense for what community and what they want,” Touton said.

Reclamation’s recent storage investments, she said, have largely been in California, where she said partners are prioritizing storage as a need.

Touton said she plans to continue touring the West to better understand which tools and infrastructure best suit specific communities.



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