[env-trinity] Can an uneasy truce hold off another water rebellion on California's northern border?

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Mon May 14 09:33:22 PDT 2018

Sacramento Bee


Can an uneasy trucehold off another water rebellion on California's northern border?


rsabalow at sacbee.com

May 11, 2018 11:20 AM

Updated May 11, 2018 07:36 PM

The last time waterwas this scarce in the Klamath Basin, a rugged agricultural area straddling theCalifornia-Oregon border, farmers clashed with U.S. marshals and opened lockedcanal gates with blowtorches so they could irrigate. Nearly 10,000 agricultureactivists from around the U.S. later converged on the region to hold symbolic"bucket brigade" protests.

Months of unrestended after then-Vice President Dick Cheney personally intervened and worked behind the scenes to have water deliveredto the growers — a decision that tribal fishing communities downstream blamedfor killing 68,000 salmon in the fall of 2002.

Now the stage is setfor another round of conflict on the Klamath River, the result of a dry winterand a court ruling by a federal judge in San Francisco.

In late April, JudgeWilliam Orrick, siding with Indian tribes and commercial fishermen, ruled thata significant share of water that farmers needed for their spring planting isgoing downstream to aid troubled fish populations.

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A few days later, thefarmer-run Klamath Irrigation District, in a letter from their attorney, toldthe federal government that it planned to open the gates on a government-ownedcanal in southern Oregon. That would allow Klamath water to flow onto onion,potato and wheat fields in time for planting season.

The district operatesthe gates under a contract with the federal government. It considers the water"the private property of Klamath irrigators," according to the letter, which was first reported by the Herald and News of KlamathFalls, Ore.

So far the farmershaven't followed through on their threat. Federal officials have been workingfuriously in the past week to keep the peace on the Klamath and avoid a repeatof 2001.

"The parties Ihave been working with in the basin, I believe, are not wanting to see thosekinds of conflicts," said Alan Mikkelsen, a senior U.S. InteriorDepartment official who has been assigned by the Trump administration tonegotiate water sharing agreements in the region. "I think that ultimatelyreason is to prevail."

But anxiety persistsalong the Klamath, from its headwaters in the high deserts of southern Oregonto where it flows into the Pacific in Northern California.

"It's prettyugly," said Scott White of the Klamath Water Users Association, anumbrella group that represents the Klamath Irrigation District and other waterdistricts in the region, which includes Siskiyou and Modoc counties inCalifornia. "I have not felt tension in this community like I feel now. Itis worrisome. I can't tell you what's going to come of it."

The KlamathIrrigation District's lawyer, Nathan Rietmann, couldn't be reached for comment.The district's manager John Wolf declined comment.

Whether the peaceholds has implications across California and the West. Much of California isreliant on the Klamath River in some way. Millions of acres of Central Valleyfarms and major cities are supplied in part by the Klamath, through diversionsfrom its largest tributary, the Trinity River.

Farmers unilaterallydeciding to take water could put the Trump administration, not known for beingsympathetic to Indian tribes and environmentalists, on the spot. The U.S.Bureau of Reclamation oversees water deliveries but said it would defer to the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service if farmers violate the judge's order. However, aspokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife said her agency's officers wouldn't stopfarmers if they try to open the canal's head gates.

Environmentalists arewatching the conflict closely, fearful it could embolden others to breakfederal environmental law. Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said he's worriedthe Trump administration is playing "hot potato" instead of making aplan to protect the fish.

"It sounds likethey're scrambling to get out of the way," he said.

Locals in the KlamathBasin also worry that any turmoil could be used by outside activist groupslooking to bring national attention to causes that have faded since the Standing Rock pipeline protests and theacquittals of Cliven Bundy and his allies in their high-profilestandoffs with the federal government.

"The verylegitimate concerns that our community has could end up getting hijacked byoutside interests who see this as a platform to address their issues, which mayhave nothing to do with our community," said Dan Keppen, executivedirector of the Klamath Falls, Ore.-based Family Farm Alliance.

Fish disease

The Bureau ofReclamation operates a network of dams, pumps and canals known collectively asthe Klamath Project. The region covers about 200,000 acres of land on bothsides of the border, serving several hundred farmers.

In 2017, Judge Orrickin San Francisco ordered Reclamation to use more of the Klamath's waters toflush out a lethal parasite called C. shasta, which has devastated fishpopulations.

Orrick's ruling was amajor victory for the Hoopa Valley, Karuk and Yurok, California's three largestNative American tribes, whose economies rely heavily on salmon fishing in theKlamath's and Trinity's lower reaches. Although it isn't harmful to humans, C.shasta killed much of the threatened juvenile coho salmon population during therecent five-year drought.

The drought anda separate disease also plagued another salmonspecies vital to the tribes, the Chinook. For the first time in history, so fewadult Chinook returned to spawn last year that the tribes had to forgo their fall fishing season. The fish are soimportant to the river tribes' cultural identities and their impoverishedcommunities, tribal health officials were worried about suicide outbreaks.

Following the 2017order, the Bureau of Reclamation devised a plan to stave off disease outbreaks.Each spring, it would hold back water in Upper Klamath Lake. If a large enoughshare of the fish population were infected, the agency would release heavyflows from a reservoir to flush out the parasites. A pulse was sent out earlierthis week.

More water for fishmeans less water for agriculture, and it means the water will get deliveredlater than usual to farmers. By the time the growing season winds down,Reclamation expects to deliver 200,000 acre-feet of water to Klamath farmers,said agency spokeswoman Laura Williams. (An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.)

That's more thantwice the amount they received in 2001, when farmers staged their protests. Butit's only about 50 percent of what farmers would get in a wet year. It's evenless than the amount received during recent drought years, when farmers couldcount on shipments of 250,000 acre-feet or more.

Farmers are expectedto augment the deliveries by pumping groundwater. That will get them "tothe realm of 75 percent of a normal water supply," Mikkelsen said."It's a timing issue more than anything else."

Farmers, however, saytiming is everything. Given the brutally short growing season in the KlamathBasin's high desert, they say even a modest delay in water deliveries would bea disaster for the region's $400 million-a-year farm economy. Last month, theypleaded with Orrick to modify his 2017 ruling and provide relief toagriculture.

"Anguish overlate or nonexistent water deliveries and resulting job insecurities ispermeating our communities, including farm laborers and other residents,"Luke Robison, a potato farmer in southern Oregon, wrote in a court filing.

Orrick wouldn'tbudge.

Within days, theKlamath Irrigation District, one of the largest water agencies in the basin,decided to push back. The district's lawyer sent Reclamation a letter May 3threatening to open the gate so farmers could begin planting.

Klamath's threattouched off a week's worth of furious negotiations aimed at staving off anall-out conflict. So far, the peace has held, in part because the region'spower company, PacifiCorp, has agreed to lend some of its water forhydroelectric generation to the farmers so they can plant at least some oftheir crops.

In addition, U.S.Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican who represents the area, says $10.3 million in federal disaster relief funds is on its wayto the basin's farmers. 

Sagebrush Rebellion

The Klamath sits in apart of the West where anti-government sentiment, often called theSagebrush Rebellion, runs high.

The basin is just 200miles west of Burns, Ore. That's where armed right-wing activists, led by thesons of anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy, seized control of a federalwildlife refuge for 41 days in 2016 to protest government land policies.

After the"Bucket Brigade" protests of 2001, some fear the Klamath could seedemonstrations on a similar scale if farmers don't get their way.

At the opposite endof the political spectrum are the Standing Rock demonstrations. There,thousands of Native Americans and their allies spent months in 2016 clashingwith law enforcement in protests over construction of the Dakota AccessPipeline under the Missouri River in North Dakota.

Ryan Jackson,the chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, said that if thefarmers upstream take action his tribe would first lodge a formal legalcomplaint.

If that doesn't stopthem, Jackson said "all options are on the table," including rallyingnational Native American activists to protest those "who would undermineour rights, our culture and our traditions."

"Standing Rock,that's an issue that the Indians talk about often," Jackson said."The more these types of things happen, the more that you're going to getpeople energized around trying to preserve what it is that we have left. TheKlamath and the Trinity rivers are part of that."

Mikkelsen, deputyInterior commissioner and Trump's point man on the Klamath, said he isoptimistic it won't come to that.

Mikkelsen has beenworking to resurrect the water-sharing and river-restoration agreementsenvisioned in settlements reached in 2005 among farmers, tribes and environmentalists.

The settlements diedin 2015, however, after congressional Republicans refused to authorize themillions of dollars to fund the landmark accords. The Republicans' stickingpoint was the settlement also included a plan to decommission four ofPacifiCorp's hydroelectric dams blocking fish migrating up the Klamath River.

In the years since,California, Oregon and the power company have begun working with tribes andfederal officials to tear down the dams without congressional approval.

With the dam-removalcomponent separate, Mikkelsen has what he said is a framework to forge alasting peace on the Klamath.

"I think at theend of the day, we're looking for long-term solutions," he said.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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