Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Fighting for Our Right to Irrigate Our Farms and Caretake Our Natural Resources

Alternative forms of power generation largely unexplored in the Klamath Basin, by Kehn Gibson, The Tri-County Courier.  2/26/03

As he did in a talk to the Tulelake Rotary in 1993, on Feb.15 environmentalist Andy Kerr gave an insight into a future avenue of attack against Klamath Basin agriculture.

Speaking as a panelist on a forum discussing the Endangered Species Act, Kerr was describing agriculture in the Basin as economically unviable, and will be especially so when the "power subsidy" expired in 2006.

As he had been doing all evening, Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association and also a panelist, parried Kerrís comment with fact.

"That is simply not true," Keppen said. "The power rates for Klamath Project use are set by a contract signed in 1956 between the power company and irrigators. While it is accurate that the contract will be renegotiated in 2006, to call it a subsidy is false and misleading."

Less is known locally about the 1956 contract than about the original contract, signed in 1917 by Project irrigators, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the California Oregon Power Company, known as COPCO.

The 1917 contract gave the power company an established customer in the Klamath Project, a customer whose power needs were sure to grow.

In turn that gave COPCO leverage to seek government and private financing to build power-generating dams on the Lower Klamath River in the 20s and 30s.

Ironically, the 1956 contract led to water conservation practices well before the notion became haute couture in liberal political circles. Because government control of the dams was dependent on river levels being kept above a minimum, farmers began conserving water by transitioning to sprinkler and pivot systems.

The 1917 contract was set to run for a 50-year span and was renewed in January 1956, with rates set at .5 cents per kilowatt for agricultural use, and seven cents for non-agricultural use.

While the seven cents per kilowatt is a good bargain, the half penny rate is substantially less than elsewhere in the country, even in the Pacific Northwest where a natural abundance of rivers has long made our power rates the envy of many.

For example, a farmer in upstate New York State pays about 9.5 cents per kilowatt for agricultural use, said Jim Havlina, a board member of the Tulelake Irrigation District and a ham radio operator.

Havlina said he has spoken with people from all over the world, including the farmer, who told Havlina he used to grow potatoes but who years ago sold almost all of his ground and got out.

The high cost of power was one of several economic factors that drove his decision, the New York farmer told Havlina.

"When I hear talk about power rates increasing tenfold or more, I listen," Havlina said. "I listen because it has happened in other places, and it could happen here."

Alternative energy generation is one way that power rates can be kept from becoming a tool for those entities and individuals who want agriculture to end in the Basin, and operators who think more than a one planting season ahead are gearing up to explore those alternatives.

Although juniper burning co-gen plants have been informally discussed by irrigation district officials, power generation alternatives powered by solar, wind or geothermal sources have barely broken ground.

Part of the reason is the technology for wind generation studies in the Klamath Basin have never been pursued to the point of real research, such as wind sustainability patterns.

When contrasted against the millions spent on studying whether the Chiloquin Dam should be removed ó an impediment to spawning sucker fish that all parties except the Klamath Tribes agree should be removed (perhaps because the 2002 Farm Bill includes another $10 million to the Tribes to study the damís removal) ó the lack of interest is anything but benign.

A proven source of energy generation that is sustainable and literally all around the Basin are the many geothermal sources.

In a story first uncovered by this writer last May, one of the wells drilled in a $2.1 million groundwater development project on the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge tested at more than 180 degrees, capable of matching the entire energy output of the city of Klamath Fallsí well known and boasted about geothermal system, according to engineers at OITís Geothermal Department.

That well also contained a dangerously high content of mercury, as was reported at the time. Altogether, three of the 11 wells drilled on the refuge in 2001 are geothermal. Two of those, including the one mentioned, contained mercury.

The third has been observed this winter pumping water into a ditch for eventual use by the refuge.

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