Wednesday, July 22, 2015

More ESA "protection" for the Klamath Basin's Irrigation Elite

The Klamath Falls Herald and News got the headline just right: House passes Walden’s plan to help protect Klamath Project water users (emphasis added). The article goes on to report that "the proposal would confer applicant status on those irrigators, ensuring that they are included in Endangered Species Act consultations that could affect operations of the water project they rely upon." Republican Congressman Greg Walden was able to add the provision to the "Western Water and American Food Security Act" which passed the House with "bipartisan support". The legislation now goes to the U.S. Senate.

Walden's effort to "protect" federal irrigators from the Endangered Species Act implements one of the main objectives of the KBRA Water Deal: to provide "relief" to Klamath Project Irrigators from requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act. That relief will also come in the form of wink-and-nod approval of Habitat Conservation Plans that KlamBlog predicts will remove ESA constraints on irrigation within the sprawling federal irrigation project. KlamBlog has previously written in depth about what we call the KBRA's "wink-and-nod" approach to implementing the ESA. The newer Upper Basin Comprehensive Agreement extends the same ESA "relief" to irrigation interests above Upper Klamath Lake.   

In the news report Walden states that the provision he championed formalizes what is already the practice: the US Bureau of Reclamation  routinely involved organizations representing irrigators in consultations with the US Fish & Wildlife and National Matrine Fisheries Services. Those consultations focus on impacts the 200,000 acre irrigation project has on Kuptu, Tsuam and Achvuun (Shortnose and Lost River Suckers and Coho salmon).

Walden's move may be in response to an investigation being conducted by the Department of Interior.  A former employee has alleged that Reclamation misspent funds which were appropriated to benefit fish and wildlife in order to pay for private growers to pump groundwater for irrigation. Involving a private entity in agency-to-agency government consultations may violate rules designed to protect such consultations from private interest influence. That may be why Walden is pushing the provision now, that is, to legalize what is otherwise an illegal practice. Whether it is legal or not, commercial interests should not be part of ESA consultations which by law are supposed to be based on the best available science and the scientific opinions of expert agencies.

Of course Reclamation does not include all those to whom it supplies water in those ESA consultations. Instead, the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA), which is controlled by a handful of large and powerful growers, is given a seat at the table while smaller irrigators are left outside.

Growers who dominate Klamath irrigation politics live in mansions like this one 
near Tule Lake. When they don't get their way they advertise their dissatisfaction.

And what about the tribes, fishermen and others who have a vital interest in how Klamath River water is managed? Why doesn't Mr. Walden want to give them a seat at the ESA consultation table too? With so many of us dependent on Klamath River water, why is just one interest singled out for special treatment with respect to those ESA consultations?

Undue influence and taxpayer support:

KlamBlog previously pointed out that the powerful growers who dominate the Klamath Irrigation Project also receive large federal subsidies. One of those growers, Rob Crawford, received over a million dollars in taxpayer funds between 1995 and 2009. Dan Keppen's Family Farm Alliance, which is also active in the Klamath River Basin, has three directors who received even more in subsidies payed for by US Taxpayers: Sandy Dean got over $2 million, Daniel Errotabere almost $3 million and Tom Rayner received almost $9 million during the same 15 year period.

Agricultural interests are now able to hide the amount they receive in taxpayer subsidies. Under the new Farm Bill, Ag folks get about 80% of their crop insurance premium payed by taxpayers; but the amount of the payments is protected from disclosure. Wouldn't you like to have 80% of your insurance bill paid by the feds?

Large taxpayer subsidies, deep political influence and control by ownership and leasing of the most productive farmlands within the Klamath Irrigation Project is why I dub the eight big growers who control KWUA the Irrigation Elite. It is similar across the West; apparently there is little that the US Bureau of Reclamation will not do in service to what it refers to as "its customers".    

Payback for services rendered:

Curt Mullis, who formerly lead the US Fish & Wildlife Service's consultations on the impacts federal irrigation has on Kuptu and Tsuam, is now retired and sits on KWUA's Board of Directors. KlamBlog believes Mullis was instrumental, while working for the federal government, in securing a critical habitat designation which writes off the endangered suckers in Tule Lake and the Lost River Basin where requirements to protect the two fish species might constrain irrigation. It is that sort of close collusion between federal officials and powerful irrigation interests which has been the subject of not one or two but three recent whistleblower complaints by federal employees.

And Mullis is not the only federal employee who has been rewarded by the Irrigation Elite.  Back in 2012 KlamBlog reported on how, at their annual dinner celebration, KWUA heaped praise on Irma Lagomarcino of NMFS, who, at the time, was in charge of the ESA consultation on federal irrigations impact to Coho Salmon. Lagomarcino is responsible for biological opinions that have resulted in 100% of the juvenile salmon migrating down the Klamath River being infected with one and often two salmon diseases. She has since been reassigned to a desk job in Portland.  

The bed of the former Tule Lake and the Lake's remnant: The Irrigation Elite's power  
and influence are reflected in the fact that Lower Klamath and Tule Lake are the only 
national wildlife refuges where commercial agriculture is permitted 
(Photo by Bret Cole)
When it comes to the Endangered Species Act, science is supposed to trump politics. But, if the Klamath whistleblowers are to be believed, in the Klamath River Basin politics trumps science. The "cultural shift" which has occurred in the Basin with respect to how the Endangered Species Act is implemented can be attributed to the KBRA: it is now OK to trash species in order to assure that the  Irrigation Elite's profits are preserved.

This is a basic form of corruption and, like all corruption, it has a tendency to spread from modest origins to where it underlies all that takes place. Water management in the Klamath River Basin has become deeply corrupt and improper implementation of the Endangered Species Act is just the tip of the iceberg. The KBRA's corrupting influence on federal employees is one of the main reasons KlamBlog opposes that backroom deal as well as its cousin, the Upper Basin Comprehensive Agreement.

Cleansing the Klamath River Basin of government agency corruption is key to cleaning up our River and restoring Klamath Salmon. Who among our political and agency leaders will sweep the stables clean? As of yet, there do not appear to be leaders with the will and fortitude necessary to do the job. Perhaps, as has been true in the past, the People will have to take this matter into their own hands.  

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