Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Primary election In Upper Klamath River Basin seen as referendum on the Dam and Water Deals

Primary election results in Oregon are being trumpeted as a defeat for promoters of the Klamath Dam and Water Deals. In the Upper Klamath River Basin an incumbent who opposed the Deals won while another incumbent who publicly supported the Deals was defeated. The Klamath Fall’s Herald and News and the regional Capital Press agricultural weekly both interpret the results as indicating that a majority of Upper Basin citizens do not support the costly and controversial Deals.

The Herald and News reports that Oregon State Representative Bill Garrard handily won the Republican Primary with 65 percent of the vote; challenger Karl Scronce got 35 percent. Garrard cited both his experience and his opposition to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (the KBRA or Water Deal) as playing a part in the size of his victory. Karl Scronce is an irrigator who supports the Water Deal.

Another elected Republican, Klamath County Commissioner John Elliot, lost in the Republican Primary to challenger Dennis Linthicum. Linthicum describes himself as a fiscal conservative who favors private sector solutions and opposes both the KBRA and dam removal. Linthicum got 63% of the vote to Elliot’s 37%.

Opponents of the Dam and Water Deals were quick to interpret these results as indicating that the vast majority of voters in the Oregon portion of the Klamath River Basin reject both the Water Deal and dam removal.  Others say that Republican opposition was predictable and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the majority of Upper Basin citizens. It remains to be seen if the Deals will be an issue in the general election this fall.

While there is clearly substantial opposition to the Klamath Deals among residents of the Klamath River Basin it is not clear what motivates that opposition.

In the Upper Basin racism may play a part. Opposition to the Klamath Tribes receiving funding to purchase forest land for a reservation has been expressed regularly in the press…including letters to the editor. Funding for the land purchase would come from the federal government and would be in exchange for settling some of the tribe’s water right claims in a manner that favors those who receive water via the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project. When sociologists from Oregon State University interviewed Upper Basin residents during the 2001 “Water Crisis” they reported that an “undercurrent of racism” was pervasive.

But opposition may also have to do with perceived winners and losers. Many Upper Basin residents understand that the KBRA favors the Bureau of Reclamation and its customers over other water users. For example, the Deal targets irrigators off the federal project for “demand reduction” while forbidding water right retirement within the federal project. That favors the wealthiest irrigators who lease and irrigate vast acreages on federal and private lands at low prices. Maintaining maximum irrigated acreage within the Klamath Project keeps the per acre cost to lease land low and profits for the wealthiest irrigators high.  

Water interests within the Klamath Project will also receive large power and other subsidies if federal legislation to implement the Deals is enacted. It is unclear which if any of these subsidies will trickle down to irrigators outside the Klamath Project. Opposition to the Deals could reflect opposition to this aspect on equity grounds; rank and file Republicans are among those Americans who favor a level playing field when private interests compete.

For some opposition to the Water Deal may focus on  the10% to 20% of Klamath Project water users who are not engaged in agriculture but will none-the-less receive subsidies. Non-Agricultural water users receiving water from the Klamath Project include a golf and country club, a particle board mill, a hunting lodge, a community college and other schools. Some Upper Basin residents may balk at targeting real farmers and ranchers for demand reduction while providing scarce water to non-agricultural commercial and government water users.

Whatever the reasons it is clear that many folks in the Upper Basin do not favor dam removal. Without a referendum, however, it is impossible to tell if these folks are the majority or only more vocal than Upper Basin dam removal supporters. It is also unclear what motivates opposition to dam removal. Is the opposition philosophical or does opposition reflect fear that taking down the dams will lead to additional constraints on water use as salmon and steelhead return to the Upper Basin?

Whether the majority of Klamath River Basin residents support or oppose dam removal is, however, irrelevant to whether or not the dams come down. Klamath Basin residents may think of the dams and reservoirs as public resources but in law they are privately owned.  As PacifiCorp spokespersons have consistently stated the company’s decision to take down the dams is purely a business decision. PacifiCorp’s owners-investors will benefit more from dam removal than they would from relicensing the Klamath dams. 

It is also becoming clear that federal legislation is not essential to the Water Deal. In fact, bureaucrats in the federal agencies are already implementing both Deals and will continue in this manner whether or not federal legislation is passed. Federal legislation is needed, however, to secure close to a billion in desired funding. Most of that funding would go to Klamath Project irrigation interests and tribes; about a quarter of the money would go to restoration projects already selected by deal-makers and detailed in an appendix to the Water Deal

Propaganda battles between supporters and opponents of the Dam and Water Deals are likely to continue at least until federal Klamath legislation is either passed or defeated. Under these circumstances any development – in the present instance an election – becomes an opportunity to engage in spin. KlamBlog will continue to disclose who is spinning and for what purpose.