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July Klamath Congressional Field Hearing –
What Will Be Learned?

July 12, 2004

Dan Keppen, Executive Director of the Klamath Water Users Association, talked with the NWRA about the upcoming Congressional field hearing scheduled for July 17. Below is the transcript of the June 30 interview:

NWRA: On July 17, the House Water and Power Subcommittee will hold a field hearing in Klamath, Oregon. What will be learned from this field hearing?

KEPPEN: Well we’re hopeful that it will illuminate the true status of where we’re at here with Klamath project operations and its relationship to Endangered Species Act implementation. In particularly, the National Academy of Science in 2003 released their final assessment of the Klamath Basin fisheries challenges that we face, and we’re hoping that the Subcommittee will have an opportunity to learn about that report, what it says about the decision to cut farmer’s water off in 2001 and the menu of actions that it establishes towards recovering fish here in the Klamath Basin. There’s some good strong messages in that study that unfortunately don’t often find their way into media reports

NWRA: What are some of the things the farmers and the Klamath Water Users have been doing?

KEPPEN: Well, several things. Shortly after the 2001 water curtailment, a debate brewed in Congress relative to the 2002 farm bill. Working with our delegation we ultimately were able to help secure provisions that provide $50 million worth of NRCS money (or, U.S, Department of Agriculture money) that helps farmers perform actions on their land and improve water use efficiency. And so far since those funds have been secured, we’ve had over 800 applications for on-farm water use efficiency improvements. That’s pretty impressive, considering it requires 25% cost share by the landowners, and a lot of these guys are putting forth their money just within a few years of having virtually no cash flow whatsoever. That’s one example of some of the proactive things that are being done.

Local water users and Klamath Irrigation District have also recently worked with the Bureau of Reclamation to complete a $15 million state of the art fish screen on Upper Klamath Lake that prevents juvenile suckerfish that are on the Endangered Species Act list from getting into project irrigation canals. There’s been a variety of other actions taken, particularly with regards to development of an environmental water bank that compensates farmers to take actions to leave water in Upper Klamath Lake and in the river to help meet these fish requirements. So, just from a conservation standpoint, folks have been very active. In the last two years, Oregon Governor Kulongoski has recognized our association as a leader in conservation and two other entities in our basin in the last year have also been nationally recognized for their conservation efforts. So clearly the farmers haven’t been idle. Unfortunately, the government has not responded with anything beyond recognition plaques. We still haven’t gotten any sort of regulatory flexibility to reflect all these conservation efforts that are already completed or underway.

NWRA: What kind of progress do you need? What policy would help your farmers the most?

KEPPEN: Well, clearly, in regards to what happened in 2001, where irrigation supplies were curtailed to meet the alleged needs of fish, we’ve got to make sure that does not happen again. Really, what led to that situation in 2001 was a decision by federal biologists to keep lake levels in Upper Klamath Lake higher to avoid jeopardizing suckerfish and NOAA Fisheries biologists set higher flow requirements on the Klamath River to allegedly avoid jeopardizing salmon. Those two conditions, developed by separate agencies, overlaid each other to cumulatively take water away from farmers. We were led to a situation, where, for the first time in 95 years, water was not made available to farmers of the Klamath Project. The Bush administration has done whatever it can to try and balance things out better by incorporating some of the findings by the National Academy of Sciences into new biological opinions that govern project operations. However, we are still relying on some of those theories that have been promoted by agency fisheries, biologists and environmentalists and now, because of the high amount of water that is being rededicated to these other purposes, we’re in a situation where at any day of the summer we could face a potential shut down if we do not meet those lake levels or flow requirements.

NWRA: Have your farmers received their contract water so far? Do you expect them to receive it through the summer?

KEPPEN: Well, you’d like to think that our summer irrigation supply is secure, , but we know that last year in the middle of the summer we had a situation where the inflows that were projected by the government to come into the Upper Klamath Lake did not materialize and we still had this rigid lake level requirement to meet. It looked like we were facing a situation that lake level requirement was going to be violated by one tenth of a foot, and at one point we were directed to shut the project down for a week in June to avoid breaking this regulatory limit on the lake. Fortunately, the same day, within four hours, clear minds prevailed and that decision was reversed. But, it almost happened and that sends a horrible message to banks that are providing financing for farmers that are looking for annual operating loans. Things have not been corrected sufficiently in the last year to prevent that from happening again. So, we need to have some biological opinions that are seriously reworked and that reflect some common sense and that are developed in a way that is coordinated with agencies. Right now, these separate documents are created in separate offices, and the combined result hurts us. We’re the ones that are solely bearing this uncertain regulatory-induced risk.

NWRA: Your people have done tremendous amounts of work to conserve fish and to conserve water. Do you have any idea how much water your conservation efforts have yielded for fish?

KEPPEN: Well it is a tough thing to quantify, because the Klamath project, for example, is a very complicated project where water use on adjacent properties is very interactive, and there is a tremendous amount of reuse that occurs. If you reduce or remove the use of water on one property, you may cause unintended impacts to neighboring properties that rely on tailwater coming off that parcel. With that said, we know for sure in the last two years, over 130,000 acre-feet of water has been provided to the environment by farmers, either through compensated crop idling or through farmers being compensated for using their own ground water in exchange for leaving Klamath Project surface water in the Klamath River system. Next year, unless biological opinions change, and regardless of actual hydrologic conditions, we’re going to be developing another 100,000 acre-feet of water for those purposes. Again, we question whether that water is actually helping the environment because the underlying biological opinions are flawed. Nevertheless, farmers are reluctantly engaging in this program, and it is a much better situation than the alternative, which is what happened in 2001, where the water was simply taken to meet these alleged needs. So, our farmers are taking actions to generate hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water to help environmental needs and frankly, the downstream interests that are benefiting from this are still our loudest critics.

NWRA: What would you ask of NWRA members? What can we do to help you?

KEPPEN: Well, as always, NWRA has done a great job of taking our message and getting it out there to a wider audience. I think all of us in rural America have a pretty difficult time getting the big city papers to capture what’s really happening on the ground and those papers tend to go with the press releases that come out of environmental groups. Your organization has really helped us get our message out, circulate it to policy makers, and provide a different slant on the issues than what you normally see in the papers. That’s all we could ask that your members continue to do: look at what NWRA is sending out, and really pay attention to this hearing and other similar hearings that are going to be held throughout the west. Three years after Klamath Project water supplies were denied to family farmers and ranchers, with two National Research Council reports now on the street that question the justification behind the government's decision, our
community still faces the possibility of another regulatory-caused drought.
The upcoming field hearing will provide a great forum to focus the spotlight
back on to the unjustice that occurred in 2001 in the Klamath Basin. Through
the fog of all the controversy, few people understand how badly the
scientific process was broken that year. The public should just beware of what happened because it’s happening in other parts of the west. I think the more people know about the true story of what happened in Klamath, the more informed folks we’ll have to influence policy makers to make sure this never happens again, in the Klamath Basin, or elsewhere..

NWRA: We certainly appreciate that and we’ll do whatever we can to help.

KEPPEN: Thanks a lot, Kris.





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