Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Klamath's Irrigation Elite is busted!

KlamBlog has for years exposed the cozy relationship between the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) and the Klamath Water and Power Agency which KWUA created with the US Bureau of Reclamation. We've pointed out that the organization is dominated by a handful of very large growers who own or lease thousands of acres of farmland receiving taxpayer subsidized water from the US Bureau of Reclamation's sprawling, 200,000 acre plus, Klamath Irrigation Project.

These large dominant growers exploit older, smaller farmers by paying very low lease rates to farm the smallholders' land. And they work through KWUA to prevent any reduction in the amount of land that is under irrigation with federal, subsidized Klamath River water in order to keep farmland lease rates low. Of course these large, dominant growers also receive millions in direct taxpayer subsidies each year. Those are just some of  the reasons KlamBlog calls these fellows The Irrigation Elite.  

Thanks to federal employee whistleblowers and the PEER organization which supports them, the Bureau of Reclamation's illegal activities in the Klamath River Basin, including diversion of wildlife funds to benefit the Irrigation Elite, have been exposed.  And now the Department of Interior's Inspector General has backed up some of those whitleblower claims.

Below you will find PEER's press release on that new development. This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. The Interior and Department of Commerce Inspector Generals need to also look into the corrupt 2013 Biological Opinion for the Klamath Project and the US Fish & Wildlife Service's decision to eliminate critical habitat for endangered Kuptu and C'waam (Shortnose and Lost River suckers) from the Lost River Basin where the Irrigation Elite controls much of the land and water. The USFWS official who engineered that gift to the Irrigation Elite is Curt Mullis. Mullis subsequently retired and was placed on the KWUA Board of Directors.  He's still a board member.

For more on the corruption of the ESA to serve the interests of federal irrigators see the KlamBlog post at this link.

Anderson Rose Dam largely dewaters the Lower Lost River in order to maximize 
irrigation. The Lower Lost River should be critical habitat for Kuptu and C'waam.

The Federal Trustee and Water Rights Negotiations

Federal watchdogs, including the Inspector Generals, should also look into whether the federal government has properly discharged its duty to protect and advance the interests of federal tribes while those tribes are negotiating water rights settlements. There is substantial evidence that in the Klamath River Basin, as in other parts of the American West, federal officials have intentionally worked to keep water to which the tribes have a right with mostly-white federal irrigators.

Those tribes and the members of those tribes would clearly be better off if the tribes retained the water rights and leased water back to irrigators on a yearly basis. That would create an income stream sorely needed by tribes and their members. But instead the feds entice tribal government leaders with promises of federal funding for cash strapped tribal departments. The lure of jobs and funding usually persuades tribal leaders to act in ways that are not in the interest of their members or of the streams in which those same tribes have in-stream water rights.

In the Klamath River Basin the feds exploit the long-standing desire of the Klamath Tribes' leaders to regain a portion of the land base they lost when their reservation was "terminated" by the Eisenhower Administration. In the Upper Basin Comprehensive Agreement those leaders agreed to give up their right to flows in the Klamath River if they can get funding to reestablish the tribal land base.

But would the Klamath Tribes and its members be better off retaining their water rights and leasing water annually to irrigators? That question, of course, only the members of the Tribes can answer. But the question raised here is different: Regardless of what tribal members ultimately decide, are federal officials looking out for the welfare of those members during tribal water rights negotiations or is their agenda to keep water with mostly white federal irrigators? 

Peer's Press Release

For Immediate Release:  Thursday, October 13, 2016
Contact:  Kirsten Stade (240) 247-0296
           Auditors Find Reclamation “Wasted” Millions in Drought & Wildlife Relief Funds    

Washington, DC — A federal water agency misspent millions of dollars intended for fish and wildlife and drought relief in the Klamath Basin on irrigator subsidies, according to new audit report which confirms charges leveled last year by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  The federal agency, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, disputes these findings and, while the payments have ended, it refuses to change its practices to prevent future abuse or to recoup moneys illegally spent.
In an audit report dated October 11, 2016, the Office of Inspector General (IG) for the Interior Department found that Reclamation improperly siphoned millions of dollars over several years to an irrigator’s group called the Klamath Water and Power Agency (KWAPA), which taps federal water projects in northern California and southern Oregon.  In recent years, the Klamath watershed has been crippled by a series of droughts.  The IG report details how Reclamation diverted $32 million in federal funds intended for drought contingency planning and helping struggling fish populations –
  • In a “waste of funds” wholly lacking in any legal authority; 
  • Paying for KWAPA salaries, fringe benefits, rent, travel and other expenses whose benefits flowed “primarily to irrigator contractors rather than fish and wildlife,” including $4.2 million for uses that could not be supported with documentation or were outright “unallowable”; and
  • By modifying the KWAPA contract “19 times to expand the scope of activities” and extend the original payment program from 2008 through September 30, 2015.
Due to complaints filed by PEER, the payments ended last year and KWAPA ceased operations on March 31, 2016. However, Reclamation rejects the IG findings. So, the IG is kicking this intra-agency dispute upstairs in Interior to “the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget for resolution.”

“Basically, the Bureau of Reclamation became an illicit ATM for favored special interests,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that these illegal payments would be continuing if Reclamation employees had not blown the whistle. “To add injury to insult, these improper subsidies were used to aggravate environmental damage by draining shrinking groundwater supplies to benefit irrigators.” 

The whistleblower complaint from two Bureau biologists filed through PEER induced the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to order the Secretary of Interior to address the illegal diversion of funds and how her agency would remedy identified violations.  That answer to the Special Counsel was due back in August of 2015 but Reclamation, on the Secretary’s behalf, has obtained extensions totaling 15 months.  

“Reclamation is circling its wagons to defend the potentially criminal conduct by its own managers,” added Dinerstein, pointing to the Anti-Deficiency Act, which forbids expenditures not authorized by any appropriation and is enforced by criminal fines and/or imprisonment for up to two years.  “We will keep pressing for some accountability to taxpayers from Reclamation’s multi-year, multi-million dollar illegal money-laundering operation.”