Monday, April 9, 2012

KBRA “cultural shift” leaves birds dead, basin communities more divided than ever

For those who follow news reports issuing from both the Upper and Lower portions of Klamath River Basin, recent news provides two distinctly different pictures of Klamath River Basin society and natural resources.  This post examines those news reports and analyses what they tell us about society and water management in Klamath Country under the KBRA Water Deal.

The Oregon-California border defines the Upper and Lower Basins which, for water management purposes, were for many years treated as if they were two rather than one river basin

Celebrating Victory

On March 29th the Upper Basin’s Herald and News reported on a celebratory meeting of the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) – the organization which represents Upper Basin interests receiving irrigation and landscaping water from the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Irrigation Project. Those water users – including those who own or lease 200,000 acres of farms and ranches, a golf and country club, hunting lodge and wood products plant – annually consume about 40% of the total water diverted from the Klamath River and major tributaries. Because they receive subsidized water and other advantages over non-federal water diverters, KlamBlog refers to these federal water users as the Irrigation Elite.

At their late March annual meeting, the Irrigation Elite feted Jason Phillips, Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) Klamath Project manager, and Irma Lagomarcino, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) manager responsible for the protection and recovery of  Klamath River Coho Salmon. Klamath River Coho are listed as “threatened” under the California and federal Endangered Species Acts.

Speakers at the event praised the two Interior Department employees for prioritizing filling Upper Klamath Lake which – in spite of low inflows in this drought year – has already been filled even before the snowmelt season begins. Doing that required Phillips and Lagomarcino to agree to cut winter flows in the Klamath River below what is required in the 2010 Biological Opinion for Klamath Coho.

Getting federal managers to prioritizing filling Klamath Lake over all other fall/winter water uses has been a priority for the Irrigation Elite and another organization they dominate – the Klamath County Chamber of Commerce.  In its 2011 annual report, KWUA President Gary Wright acknowledged that the Irrigation Elite organized a campaign to pressure Philips and Lagomarcino to prioritize irrigation needs over the needs of fish and wildlife:                                                                     
       “That work started last fall as we pushed hard to prevent excessive releases (from Upper Klamath Lake) in order to fill Upper Klamath Lake through the winter months. We received great cooperation from Jason Phillips and Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) and appreciate their efforts.” 

Although it is a natural lake, Upper Klamath Lake is the main storage for the Klamath Irrigation Project. For the past two years, KlamBlog has been reporting on bureaucratic manipulations (mischief) implemented  by the BOR and NMFS that have cut Klamath River flows in order to fill Upper Klamath Lake as early in the year as possible as demanded by the Irrigation Elite. Here are links to those prior posts: 

And to the Losers

At the Irrigation Elite’s celebration there was no mention of the Upper Basin’s world famous wildlife refuges. But a few days later the Two Rivers Tribune – a Lower Basin newspaper – reported “Thousands of birds drop dead in Klamath Refuge.”. The article noted that the BOR had stopped supplying water to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge beginning on January 2nd and continuing through mid-March. The Refuge’s water supply was eliminated in order to accelerate filling Upper Klamath Lake, that is, to satisfy the Irrigation Elite by implementing their irrigation-first philosophy.  

Sunset on Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge
As a result of the 2½ month cut-off of water to Lower Klamath Refuge, a dramatic bird die-off began  in late February. The die-off peaked in March along with the spring northern bird migration.
The Klamath Refuges are a critical stopover for birds migrating north and south on the Pacific Flyway. According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service:
           “Approximately 80 percent of the flyway's migrating waterfowl pass through the Klamath Basin on both spring and fall migrations, with 50 percent using the refuge. Peak waterfowl populations can reach 1.8 million birds, which represent 15 to 45 percent of the total birds wintering in California. The refuge produces between 30,000 and 60,000 waterfowl annually.”

An estimate 10,000 mallard and pintail ducks, snow geese and other birds died as a result of the dewatering of the refuge. The water-cut off likely also resulted in “take” of Bald Eagles which rely on Klamath Refuge birds to survive during the winter. While no longer on the endangered species list, the Bald Eagle is still protected by two federal laws and remains a fully protected species in California.

Since passage of the KBRA Water Deal, however, neither federal agencies nor the California Department of Fish & Game are enforcing Bald Eagle protection laws with respect to the Irrigation Elite. “Relief” from federal and California Bald Eagle protections is one of the gifts to the Irrigation Elite enshrined in the KBRA Water Deal (see KBRA sections 23 and 24 at this link)

Klamath Refuge manager Ron Cole explained that the immediate cause of the recent bird deaths was avian cholera – a natural bacterial disease which ordinarily kills 100 to 300 birds on the refuges each year.  While the disease is always present, however, it can become epidemic when water supplies are cut. As refuge wetlands dry-up birds suffer severe overcrowding on the few remaining wetlands. Just as with salmon and humans, overcrowded conditions often lead to natural diseases becoming epidemic.

The waterfowl and other birds killed as a result of the BOR’s cut-off of water to Lower Klamath Refuge are a treaty rights species for Indigenous native tribes living in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic. There is no word yet whether these tribes will demand that the Bureau of Reclamation pay reparations for their role in killing birds on which the Indigenous members of these tribes have a right by treaty. 

Self Censorship?

The Klamath Refuge migratory bird die-off was reported up and down the Pacific Flyway and beyond. The story was picked up by ABC News. But the die-off was not reported in the Upper Basin until a reader sent a letter to Herald and News editors on March 27th. On the very next day the Herald and News finally published a news article reporting the bird deaths.

Early in the winter the newspaper published an article about the outstanding wildlife viewing on the refuges. But throughout late winter and spring the Herald and News and other Upper Basin news outlets were silent about the plight of Lower Klamath Refuge; BOR’s decision to cut off the water supply was not reported. That silence lasted until the letter to the editor forced Herald and News editors to finally report the die-off. But even then the Upper Basin's main newspaper refused to connect the die-off to the BOR’s decision to cut-off water to the refuges.

Below are links to those Herald and News articles; readers can judge for themselves whether the publication’s editors and reporters engaged in self-censorship. From KlamBlog’s perspective, the Herald and News has long refused to accurately report news which could damage the interests of the Irrigation Elite; that news is either suppressed or editorially down-played. Crusading journalists these folks at the Herald and News are not!

Here are links to H&N articles celebrating the early filling of Upper Klamath Lake and the resulting likelihood that the Irrigation Elite will get all the water they desire:

And here are links to the letter to editors which forced H&N editors to report on the bird die-off and to the short H&N news report which downplays the link between the avian cholera epidemic and the BOR’s refuge water cut-off. Notice that the Herald and News failed to seek comment on the die-off from local Audubon or other bird enthusiasts. 

Is this what “Peace on the River” looks like?

When the KBRA Water Deal was presented to the public, its promoters claimed it would result in a new era of Peace on the River. We were also told that all the Basin’s fish and wildlife would be taken care of…including the Klamath Refuges. No longer, we were assured, would Lower Klamath and other refuges be dewatered in order to maximize water deliveries to the Irrigation Elite.

It is now clear, however, that while many aspects of the KBRA have already been implemented, those which might benefit the refuges have not been undertaken.  In fact, promoters of the KBRA Water Deal have issued a second annual report which they say details “significant progress” and “accomplishments…implementing a number of the provisions of the agreements.”

The report is 103 pages long and it does mention the refuges; its section on refuge-related accomplishments is one paragraph:
               “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and Klamath Project Water Users are working on interim actions under KBRA Section 15.1.2.J to resolve outstanding issues related to water rights for the Refuges. Other provisions will be implemented on a schedule that will allow implementation when the diversion limits in Appendix E-1 become effective in 2020 or 2021. (See KBRA Section 15.1.2.C)”

Just like the Irrigation Elite, the Klamath Wildlife Refuges do not currently posses water rights; that will change when Oregon’s Upper Basin Adjudication is completed sometime next year. However, through the KBRA the Irrigation Elite hope to forestall the granting of a water right to the Refuges. The KBRA also seeks to prevent the Refuges from accessing groundwater to supply refuge wetlands. The Elite wants to keep the refuges dependent on the BOR – and them - for water; the KBRA advances that agenda.

Under the KBRA the Refuges must wait until “2020 or 2021” for a secure water supply. Meanwhile taxpayer dollars have already been used to develop the Klamath Water and Power Agency (KWAPA) with the aim of lowering water pumping costs to irrigation districts.

KWAPA is currently developing a plan which aims to “minimize reductions in irrigated agriculture” and to “avoid any uncompensated reduction in irrigated agriculture” within the federal Klamath Irrigation Project. The taxpayer-funded KWAPA plan, however, does not have as an objective providing an adequate water supply to Lower Klamath and Tule Lake Refuges even though the refuges are located within the federal Klamath Irrigation Project. 

 Wetlands on Klamath and Tule Lake Refuges are a fraction of what they once were. To add insult to injury, commercial farming is allowed on over 22,000 acres of these public refuges. These are the only national wildlife refuges in the country where commercial farming is allowed.

The drying up of the refuges this winter in order to maximize irrigation deliveries  - coupled with front loading taxpayer funding for KBRA provisions benefiting agriculture – leads KlamBlog to conclude that Irrigation Elite promises to take care of the refuges are little more than hollow rhetoric.  As water management decisions this year demonstrate, the BOR – now with the acquiescence of KBRA “parties” – is still willing to dewater the refuges in order to keep the Irrigation Elite happy. 

The bottom line is that there is nothing preventing the Obama Administration from providing balanced water management (sharing available water among all users) right now …nothing, that is, except for the Irrigation Elite which insists that its needs must be guaranteed first even if that means dewatering the refuges.     

With two years of management under the KBRA now behind us, it is becoming clear that the Deal’s “parties” cannot deliver what they promised. They promised “peace on the river” - but Klamath River Basin communities are more divided than ever. They promised to take care of the refuges and salmon but - as KlamBlog has reported here and in several other posts - both Klamath Salmon and the Klamath Refuges have been sacrificed in the two years since the KBRA was signed in order to maximize water delivery to the Irrigation Elite

Life in the Klamath River Basin under the KBRA is looking very much like a return to the good old days before the Coho were ESA listed. Back then the BOR managed the Klamath’s water with a clear priority of Irrigation First no matter what the cost to other resources, interests and water users.

The Irrigation First federal Klamath policy was eventually challenged by a coalition of tribes, environmental groups and fishermen. But the KBRA Water Deal shattered that coalition and now many of its members are meek and pliable supporters of the Irrigation Elite’s priorities. In fact, those KBRA “parties” do not really have a choice: By placing their signatures on the KBRA Deal, they have accepted a contractual “duty to support” just this sort of mischief.

It is unlikely that many KBRA signatories – the “parties” - actually know what they committed to support when they signed the KBRA. KlamBlog knows for a fact that members of the governing boards of several KBRA “parties” never read the document prior to signing or since. Governing board and tribal council members are unaware of the many “duty to support” commitments, other “obligations” and “regulatory assurances” they have committed to on the recommendation of lawyers and consultants.

These board and tribal council members do, however, seem to have gotten the message: no matter how outrageous the management actions of the BOR and the Irrigation Elite become, they need to keep their mouths shut. With several of those organizations now also dependent on grant money from the BOR, their ability to speak and act on behalf of salmon and other wildlife is severely compromised.         

No wonder the Irrigation Elite are celebrating and throwing rhetorical bouquets at the federal officials who are doing their bidding. Among these KBRA promoters and for Upper Basin media the refuge problems are an inconvenient truth to be minimally acknowledged if absolutely necessary and then swept under the rug as quickly as possible. The emphasis instead is on the “March Miracle”   which wiped out a drought and guaranteed full water deliveries to the Irrigation Elite.

Cultural Shift or Cultural Revival?

When she was recently feted in the Upper Basin, NMFS Klamath Manager Irma Lagomarcino spoke of a “cultural shift” which she says is a direct result of the KBRA Water Deal. KlamBlog quite agrees - but we would call it a “cultural revival” rather than a “shift”. This then is the Brave New World of Klamath River water management under the KBRA: not “Peace on the River” but a return to the good old days when nothing and no one was allowed to stand in the way of providing water to the Basin’s Irrigation Elite.

This year the rest of the Klamath River Basin’s water users will be dealing with a year in which - according to the NRCS April 1 report - snowpack is 66% of the long-term average and inflow to Upper Klamath Lake is forecast at 56% of average. For the Irrigation Elite, however, drought has been abolished; even though BOR is covering its butt by projecting potential cuts in water deliveries, we're betting the Irrigation Elite will receive all the water they desire. This has been accomplished not through the agency of Mother Nature, but as a direct result of the US Department of Interior, the US Department of Commerce and the Obama Administration once again bowing to the desires of those powerful Upper Basin water users – the Klamath’s Irrigation Elite.

April 1st Klamath River Basin Snowpack
source: Natural Resource Conservation Service

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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