Projects and Stories

The Klamath Basin in 2013: From Crisis to Breakthrough

How local leaders pushed past a perfect storm of water-related challenges to put the basin back on a path to recovery.

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Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Michael McCullough.

The end of the year is often a time of reflection. December 2013 is an especially good time to look back at the Klamath River Basin. The Klamath, which runs from the Oregon high desert to the California Coast, is a place of singular biodiversity, food production, and beauty. It is also home to perhaps the fiercest water dispute in the nation. For over a decade, Sustainable Northwest has helped forge solutions that work for the Basin's natural resources and the people that rely upon them.

Three years ago, things were looking up in the Klamath. In 2010 the Klamath Basin Settlement Agreements were signed by 40 diverse interests to much national fanfare. A certain former California Governor proclaimed "Hasta la vista, Klamath dams," referring to the planned removal of four dams that joined a basin-wide water-sharing plan as the heart of these Agreements. When the introduction of federal legislation followed in 2011 to fund the Agreements, optimism peaked that peace on the river was near.

But the Klamath bill stalled in Congress, and a perfect storm of events brought matters to a head in the upper basin this year. Oregon declared a drought emergency. The Klamath Tribes and irrigators served by the federal Bureau of Reclamation enforced newly-minted senior water rights, cutting off water to hundreds of farmers and ranchers not served by Reclamation. Fish sacred to the Klamath tribes teetered near extinction. Power rates for irrigators and the wildlife refuges increased 1200% compared to 2006. And finally, too little water caused the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge to go dry and the Tule Lake Refuge to suffer a disease outbreak that killed 9,000 birds. By summer, a return to conflict - even violence - felt inevitable.

But, it didn't happen. Despite frustration and real hardship, calm and reason prevailed due to the tenacity of those who had spent over a decade building a foundation of trust. The coalition of local interests and agency representatives that crafted the Agreements stayed unified. They welcomed former foes to the table, remained open to new ideas, and rose together to face their new reality.

The coalition shined at a public hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee in Washington, DC in June. In July, the committee's chair, Senator Ron Wyden, along with Senator Merkley, Representative Walden, and Governor Kitzhaber, responded to the panel's unanimity by convening a task force, which included Sustainable Northwest, to build on the Agreements and present a more affordable and comprehensive package that serves a broader collection of interests. The task force members met for six months, across countless tables, as summer turned to winter.

Sustainable Northwest was at the forefront of these efforts. We shaped testimony and offered shuttle diplomacy that enabled the coalition's stellar performance before Congress. We provided technical, legal, and financial assistance that allowed key local irrigator and tribal representatives to successfully drive task force negotiations. We guided communications to the national decision-makers who will be asked to support the end results. As an honest broker looking out for the 'place,' not a particular interest or perspective, Sustainable Northwest carefully calculated and coordinated the steps needed for the community to turn the tide.

Cake thanking the Klamath Basin Task Force at PROSPER reception in Klamath Falls, December 3, 2013
Celebratory cake thanking the Klamath Basin Task Force

And turn the tide they did. The final task force meeting was December 3 in Klamath Falls, and the results are a resounding success. The new federal costs of the Agreements were cut by a third. We now have a clearer path to lower-cost power for irrigators and wildlife refuges. And after tireless negotiations, representatives of the Klamath Tribes and the vast majority of upper basin irrigators reached a historic agreement in principle that outlines terms for achieving long-term water-sharing, fisheries recovery, and local economic stability. We expect a final agreement soon. Finally, at a press event in Klamath Falls in early December, Senator Wyden expressed his intent to introduce legislation to enact the comprehensive package in early 2014.

The last twelve months in the Klamath Basin revealed the power of collaboration and compromise. It showed us what can happen when we are courageous enough to put aside our own ideology and vision of the perfect result, and instead place the needs of our neighbors alongside our own. At the events in Klamath Falls this week, we didn't see combatants in the West's most notorious water war, we saw signs of a community becoming one before our eyes.

We are honored to work in the Klamath and applaud all those who took the hard road that leads to balanced solutions that meet the needs of wildlife and local communities. While there is surely more work to do, the Klamath is back on the road to recovery.

Senator Ron Wyden with Klamath Basin Task Force, Klamath Falls, December 3, 2013
Senator Ron Wyden with Klamath Basin Task Force, December 3, 2013