Earthfix
7:17 am
Wed December 4, 2013

Three Things About The Political Pep Rally In Klamath Falls

Originally published on Tue December 3, 2013 9:17 pm

But that's what's in the works for Wednesday morning, when U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Gov. John Kitzhaber will all converge on Klamath Falls to hail the almost-done deal for dividing up scarce water in a thirsty corner of the Northwest.

Even a few months ago, when the basin was gripped in a drought, such a media event would have been hard to imagine. Dry conditions had prompted the Klamath Tribes to evoke their newly-recognized rights as first-in-line for water.

That kept streams flowing in order to maintain the tribes' subsistence salmon and suckerfish fisheries. On the flip side, it meant water that would otherwise have been available for the least senior water users -- ranchers in the Upper Klamath Basin, wouldn't be able to draw those streams down to irrigate their alfalfa hay or water their cattle.

Instead of igniting the Water Wars the conditions kept negotiators at the table. By Monday, a task force that includes those same tribal members and ranchers announced a deal in principle. They say it will to avert a repeat of the summer of '13. Twenty-four hours later -- enough time for staffers for two U.S. senators and a governor to rearrange their bosses' schedules and book flights to a small town near the state's southern border -- the three most influential holders of statewide office will join the task force to more officially announce that same deal.

What does that tell us?

1. This agreement must be pretty solid. When three big-name politicians -- one who's on next year's ballot (Merkley) and one who might be joining him (Kitzhaber) -- decide to invite the media to watch them pat ranchers, tribal members and other local leaders on the back, you can bet they've done the political calculus first and decided this is a winner of a photo op.

2. This could be an opening to push for a bigger deal in Congress. Wyden created that task force as a way to break two logjams -- the one in the Klamath Basin over water, and the other in Congress. The second standoff is over legislation to enact the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. That stalled legislation would authorize the removal of four PacifiCorp-owned dams on the Klamath, and the spending of $800 million on habitat restoration, fish recovery, and other activities.

3. Long-term thinking is catching on. That was already made clear by the fact that the scenes of the early aughts -- the bucket brigades, the unauthorized opening of head gates to let water flow to parched farms and fields -- didn't materialize this summer. Neither did the massive fish-kill that resulted from water made too warm by inadequate flows.

And the actions taken and endorsed by politicians weren't meant to just get through the next election cycle.

Instead, the task force kept meeting, and working toward a solution that farmers, tribal members, and commercial fisherman are hoping is about more than just helping politicians survive another campaign cycle.

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