Saturday, September 25, 2010

Why Siskiyou Supervisor Jim Cook waffled on the Klamath Dam and Water Deals

There is an apparent change among Siskiyou County’s political elite as revealed by recent actions of the County’s Board of Supervisors. As reported in the Siskiyou Daily News, the supervisors recently voted to join the Siskiyou County Flood Control and Water Conservation District in sending a letter to the water resources departments of California and Oregon, as well as the Klamath River Compact Commission. The letter expresses both boards’ opposition to the Dam and Water Deals formally known as the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) and Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA).

The vote of the Flood Control Board was 4 to 1 with the South County's Ed Valensuela voting against sending the letter of opposition. The vote of the Board of Supervisors split differently with 3 voting to send the letter of opposition and 2 voting not to send it.

The strange thing is that both boards are composed of exactly the same five individuals: Grace Bennett, Marcia Armstrong, Ed Valensuela, Michael Kobseff and Jim Cook. Valensuela and Cook voted against the Board of Supervisors sending the letter.

Valensuela’s refusal to condemn the two Deals is well known. He represents the Mt. Shasta-Dunsmuir portion of the county which is a progressive enclave in otherwise ultra-conservative Siskiyou County. Previously Valensuela has been the lone vote against uncompromising opposition to the Deals. But Cook’s vote as supervisor signals a change in position; previously he has been one of the most vocal critics of the two Agreements.

Cook’s waffling appears baffling until one considers the district he represents. Siskiyou County’s sprawling first supervisorial district includes portions of the Shasta River Valley, the Copco Area (where opposition to dam removal is fierce among those who live near Copco Reservoir) and the richest portions of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project – the former beds of Tule and Lower Klamath Lakes.

Irrigators in the Tule Lake area in particular live in large houses or small mansions and control thousands of acres of farmland both on and off the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. There is so much land available for lease in the area that this small group of irrigators get to farm vast acreage at very little cost. All the irrigation water they choose to take goes with the lease. Those cheap lease rates and cheap water courtesy of the federal government are the foundation of the Irrigation Elite’s wealth.

With that wealth comes political power and the reach of that power extends to Sacramento, Salem and Washington DC where both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have typically been eager to do the bidding of the Irrigation Elite.

Supervisor Cook’s change of position on the Dam and Water Deals reflects the power of constituents who stand to gain tremendously if those Deals become law. In short, the Irrigation Elite has gotten to Cook and his desire to stay in office has overcome his ideological opposition to the Deals. Here’s how the Siskiyou Daily News reported Cook’s rationalization:
      Cook explained that while he continues to oppose dam removal, there were certain aspects of each agreement with which he does not find fault, explaining that he believes the restoration agreement has actions that can help the basin immediately.

It would be interesting to know which "aspects" of the Deals Cook now supports and we invite Supervisor Cook to enumerate those "aspects" here on KlamBlog. We strongly suspect that the "aspects" which directly benefit the Irrigation Elite at the expense of other irrigators and other interests are what Cook now finds can help the basin immediately.

Cook's new position may also indicate a change of position on the part of the Irrigation Elite themselves. The Elite is represented by the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA). As one of the Deals main beneficiaries, KWUA has taken the position that the Dam and Water Deals are indivisible and must be accepted in total.  Cook's new position may reflect that his most wealthy constituents realize that they can't get the whole package and are now positioning themselves and their supporters to secure those aspects which benefit them most.

The biggest prize for the Irrigation Elite is the Water Deal's allocation of a large amount of Klamath River Water to the federal irrigation project which serves them. If the Water Deal becomes law, the irrigation elite would have first call on a large amount of Klamath River water ahead of salmon and other irrigators. That water allocation would only be limited if Coho salmon were placed in jeopardy as a result. Cook can be expected to do what he can to deliver that prize in particular to the Irrigation Elite.

The problem for Cook is that a first-in-line water allocation to the Irrigation Elite is contrary to the interests of Shasta Valley irrigators who are also his constituents. If the Water Deal becomes law, those irrigators will likely be forced to curtail irrigation to provide Klamath River flows that now come from Upper Klamath Lake - the main source of water to the Irrigation Elite.

KlamBlog has previously opined that the Siskiyou Supervisors opposition to the Deals would likely evaporate if the payoffs to the county were sufficient; it now appears that the price for Supervisor Cook’s support - at least for some aspects of the Deals - has been paid.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Siskiyou County’s water war

In the latest in what will likely be years of legal wrangling, Siskiyou County has filed a motion in the case challenging groundwater pumping in the Klamath Basin’s Scott River Valley. The County wants the case moved from Sacramento Superior Court – where it was filed – to Siskiyou County Superior Court.

The County argues that the lawsuit is a challenge to the Scott Valley Surface Water Adjudication because the Adjudication defined areas of “interconnected groundwater” outside of which groundwater pumping is unregulated. Since the Siskiyou County Superior Court retained jurisdiction over the Adjudication, Siskiyou County argues, the case should be heard by that court.

Those filing the lawsuit – the Environmental Law Foundation and commercial salmon fishing interests – argue that the State Water Resources Control Board has jurisdiction and therefore that Sacramento is the proper venue for the case.

However the County’s motion is decided, the case will most likely end up in the California Supreme Court or - at minimum - in the appellate court system. This will take years to play out; some predict decades.

Meanwhile folks in the Scott River Valley are being whipped up for an all out water war. Property Rights leaders portray the lawsuit, state ordered reporting of water diversions and related calls for water for Coho Salmon and Lamprey as threats to surface diversions, municipal water, all private wells and, of course, property rights.

In reality, any action to put more water into the Scott River will likely target groundwater pumping which has increased dramatically in the Scott River valley since the 1970s. Surface water diversions are unlikely to be affected. The reason is simple: under California Water Law first in time still means first in right; since the groundwater irrigators came last, they will have to curtail pumping in order for flows in the Scott River to improve.

The ELF-salmon fishermen’s lawsuit is aimed squarely at that increased groundwater pumping most of which is for irrigation. Irrigated agriculture has pushed up side valleys and onto the foothills surrounding Scott Valley and the process continues with new land coming under irrigation this year. All this has been totally unregulated.

The federal government has encouraged bringing marginal land under irrigation by funding irrigation infrastructure

Property rights hysteria aside, neither ELF’s groundwater lawsuit nor Klamath Riverkeeper’s challenge to Cal Fish & Game’s proposed Coho Permit for Scott Valley agriculture, are likely to put more water in the Scott anytime soon. Whether the State Water Board’s new emphasis on surface waster diversion reporting results in more water in Scott River remains to be seen. This blog has photographed and reported on Scott Valley diversions from Kidder, Etna and other streams which are run full year around. Reporting requirements should end that practice. But whether state regulators have the stomach to end lawless diversions remains to be seen.

The Dry Riverbed will return

As this post is being written, the USGS Gauge on Scott River below Scott Valley is reading about 34 cubic feet per second – better than the 30 cfs readings recorded during August. Cooler fall temperature and less sunlight mean natural vegetation, alfalfa and (new) rice fields are consuming less water; hence the increased flow.

Thirty cubic feet per second is the minimum Klamath National Forest riparian water right in Scott River. It is the minimum flow the Siskiyou County Superior Court found is needed in the Scott River to maintain Salmon and other fisheries. Although calibration of the USGS’s Scott River flow gauge is disputed, this year the official reading never dipped below 30 cfs.

Years of more normal precipitation and droughts, however, will return. When Scott River flow again falls below the legal minimum will those who champion Chinook Salmon, Pacific Lamprey and Coho Salmon take action to enjoin upstream water users? Those preaching water war in Siskiyou County apparently think so. With no government mechanism established to mediate such conflicts, the courts look like the only avenues open to those who want to stop the dewatering of Scott Valley.

Lack of governance fuels litigation

Government management of water in the American West has been a contentious topic since white Europeans first arrived. The result is an incomplete hodgepodge of water laws, confused and confusing jurisdictions which fuel constant streams of litigation. John Wesley Powell, western explorer and father of the US Geological Survey, suggested organizing western states along river basin lines. Similar calls have echoed from time to time around the West and recently in the Klamath River Basin.

A movement for whole-basin, all-interest Klamath River Basin water management did not make it into the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and has yet to catch fire in Klamath Country. Instead water issues in the Basin will continue to play out the way they typically have in the West – through litigation, side deals and piecemeal settlements.

Many before KlamBlog have pointed out that this is not a good way to manage the West’s most precious resource. But the sort of leadership needed to take us beyond this contentious, fragmented and litigious approach has not yet appeared…not on the Klamath…not in the West…and not in the wider world.