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Water Fight Shifts to Power Rates
By Jeff Barnard, The Associated Press, Klamath Forest Alliance website.
June 6, 2005

MERRILL - The continuing battle in the Klamath Basin between farmers who need scarce water for their crops and activists who believe it should be used to preserve threatened and endangered fish has moved to a new front.

Environmentalists, salmon fishermen and the Hoopa and Yurok tribes, who champion more water for fish, have turned their focus on the price of electricity that pumps the water through miles of canals on the Klamath Reclamation Project and into individual irrigation systems.

Unsuccessful in winning a federal buyout of irrigated farmlands, they are taking a page from conservatives and pushing for the free market to reduce irrigation.

They support the utility PacifiCorp's moves to raise electric rates for 1,300 customers on the Klamath Reclamation Project and neighboring lands as much as 1,000 percent to market rates when the current 50-year contract expires next April.

The idea is that higher power prices will make it too expensive to irrigate tens of thousands of acres of marginal farmland, putting more water in the Klamath River for struggling salmon.

``The question is whether it is in the public interest to subsidize irrigation on the most marginal lands,'' said Jim McCarthy of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, an environmental group. ``The balance can be here if we just let it occur and stop the subsidy. You will see more water going down the river for fish and wildlife, which is also an economic engine for the coast and southern Oregon.''

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents California salmon fishermen facing a sharp reduction in their catch due to struggling runs in the Klamath River, has thrown its support behind PacifiCorp on the issue.

``The Klamath Basin is so water-starved that every effort should be made to conserve rather than provide economic incentives to waste,'' said Glen Spain of the fishermen's association.

Authorized in 1905, the Klamath Reclamation Project built a network of canals to drain Tule Lake in California and Lower Klamath Lake in Oregon and now irrigates 180,000 acres of farmland that produce grain, alfalfa, onions, potatoes, horseradish, and cattle.

On most projects around the West, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built dams to provide low-cost power for irrigators.

Not so in Klamath. They ceded that responsibility to California & Oregon Power Co., which built dams to regulate flows out of Upper Klamath Lake and produce electricity. Copco has since been taken over by PacifiCorp, which is owned by the multinational energy giant Scottish Power.

For PacifiCorp, it's a matter of updating rates that have not changed since 1956, and a deal that began in 1917, said spokesman Jon Coney.

Electric rates of 0.6 cents per kilowatt hour were 20 percent below market in 1956, said Coney. They are now 99 percent below the 6 cents per kilowatt hour charged for irrigation power in Oregon; the rate in California is 8 cents per kilowatt hour.

Lumping together the 220 customers on the project in California, 720 on the project in Oregon, and 300 off the project in California - including a golf course, cemetery and schools that pay 0.75 cents per kilowatt hour - PacifiCorp loses $8 million to $10 million a year, Coney said.

``The rates that are charged customers reflect what it costs to serve them, generate power, deliver power, and maintain the infrastructure,'' said Coney. ``What this class of customers pays does not cover those costs. By any measure, certainly by any regulatory measure, an arrangement like this certainly couldn't be continued.''

Farmers counter that their operation and maintenance of the Klamath Project provides water for PacifiCorp's dams. And if it costs too much to power new efficient sprinkler systems - some paid for with $50 million in federal programs to reduce water demand - they will go back to flood irrigation, which generally uses more water.

Though the cost would be a big shock for farmers, most will stay in business, moving to cheaper methods such as flood irrigation.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and as defined under the provisions of "fair use", any copyrighted material herein is distributed without profit or payment for non-profit research and for educational use by our membership

 
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