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A historic bargain doesn't just evaporate

Published March 28, 2005

In the bargaining over electricity rates, Klamath Basin irrigators claim the backing of history, and PacifiCorp claims the backing of the law. The irrigators have the better case.

It is a crucial question. Irrigated agriculture in the Klamath Basin is utterly dependent on electricity to run pumps and move water around. Electrical rates could be as important to the future of farming in the Basin as the outcome of deliberations over suckers and salmon.

As things stand today, PacifiCorp says Basin farmers are no longer entitled to the cheap rates they've enjoyed for decades. If PacifiCorp has its way before federal and state regulators, rates could go up tenfold. That would wipe tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars off the bottom line for individual operators. It might well dry up irrigation in the Klamath Basin. This is not a result that should be left to one company, nor to panels of non-elected regulators.

So, the history is important.

As American rivers were dammed in the 20th century, there was no single pattern of development. Usually the federal government built and managed the dams and generators, sometimes under public authorities, the most famous of them in the Tennessee River valley. Sometimes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built and managed the dams, as on the Missouri River. Sometimes the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation did the development, as was the case in much of the West.

Sometimes, as in the case of the Klamath River, private developers were allowed to build dams, under government license.

In the case of the Klamath River, there was a historic bargain: In exchange for the ability to dam the rivers and create reservoirs that served both power generation and irrigated agriculture, PacifiCorp's corporate predecessor, Copco, was required to give irrigators a cheap power rate.

Over time, this rate permitted Basin irrigators to make a profit selling sturdy commodities such as potatoes, onions and alfalfa hay to support the cattle business. The Basin is too high and the growing season too short to support the high-value fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in California's Great Valley or the Willamette Valley.

This bargain was ratified a number of ways. The most significant were the operating licenses granted the power companies and the Klamath River Compact of 1957, agreed to by the states of Oregon and California and by the federal government.

This historic bargain is at risk today as PacifiCorp's license to operate the Klamath River dams is about to expire. PacifiCorp says it will no longer charge a low rate because state laws don't permit such favoritism.

Ultimately, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state utilities regulators will make a decision about this point. But the argument is hard to swallow.

Utility companies offer a welter of rates, not quite so many as airlines, but a lot of them. The reasons vary from the ability of a business to interrupt power in an emergency to a consumer's preference for wind power.

More important, there's zero evidence that legislators in Oregon or California have taken action in recent decades to nullify any part of the Klamath bargain that stretches back nearly 100 years. What we have here is a company putting its own spin on state laws to allow it to derive maximum income from its property. That's understandable from the company's point of view, unacceptable from the Basin's.

The question before the Klamath Basin, the states of Oregon and California and the nation at large is precisely the question the nation faced in 2001 when the water was shut off at the beginning of the growing season: Will irrigated agriculture persist in the Klamath Basin?

Historically, the nation has determined that farming should continue in the Basin. As a result of that determination, certain conditions were established. Cheap electricity was important among them.

That doesn't mean the rates stay precisely where they are. It does mean that PacifiCorp acknowledges the history and bargains with farmers for rates that will allow irrigated agriculture to continue in the Basin.

PacifiCorp should not be allowed unilaterally to unravel one part of this historic bargain. To do so would be to deal the Basin a blow that would rival that of the collapse of the timber industry.

Editorial board

Pat Bushey wrote today's editorial, which represents the view of the Herald and News editorial board. Its members include:

  • Publisher Heidi Wright.
  • Editor Tim Fought.
  • City Editor Todd Kepple.
  • Opinion Editor Pat Bushey.
  • addition, three members of the public sit in on editorial board meetings as community advisors. Bushey writes most of the editorials.




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