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Oregon water regulators to recoup Klamath costs, order devices

Oregon’s water regulators plan to recoup the cost of investigating Klamath Basin irrigation diversions from farmers while requiring others to install measurement devices.

The actions stem from a court ruling that determined the Oregon Water Resources Department had unlawfully allowed the federal government to release water from Upper Klamath Lake for in-stream purposes that should have gone to the Klamath Irrigation District.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation intended to provide water for federally protected fish, but a state judge ruled in July that the agency doesn’t have an established water right to make those releases.

The judge blocked OWRD from allowing water releases unless the agency determines the Bureau of Reclamation has a “right, license or permit” to do so.

As a result, OWRD has undertaken investigations to figure out the amount of water stored in the lake, how much is diverted for irrigation as well as natural in-flows and out-flows, which is meant to allow the agency to “take charge” of the reservoir.

To that end, the agency has spent more than $10,000 in its investigations of the “complex water storage and delivery system,” and will likely need to spend another $42,000 in staff time, vehicle miles and lodging expenses, according to OWRD.

During its Aug. 27 meeting, the Oregon Water Resources Commission — which oversees OWRD — voted 4-2 to provide the agency with the authority to “seek payment in advance” from the Klamath Irrigation District to finish its investigations.

While it’s “unlikely” that OWRD will try to recoup the $10,000 it’s spent up until now, the continued investigation is “a large new workload that requires additional resources to undertake,” said Racquel Rancier, the agency’s senior policy coordinator.

The $42,000 needed to “carry out the investigation and associated distribution of water” may still be revised but it’s the “best estimate at the moment,” she said.

Gene Souza, executive director and manager of the Klamath Irrigation District, said he believes the Klamath Basin is being used as a “scapegoat” in this case so that OWRD can require more water measurement and reporting.

“I feel like they’re using delay tactics and pushing another agenda, really,” Souza said.

Determining whether the Bureau of Reclamation is infringing on the irrigation district’s water rights would be a “simple math problem,” so OWRD’s request to recoup money isn’t relevant to the question at hand, he said.

Souza said he’s also concerned that OWRD’s authority to recoup expenses will turn into a “blank check” that will continue to rack up costs for irrigators, who have foregone roughly $120 million in crop value based on the amount of irrigation water they’ve been denied in the past two years.

Rancier of OWRD said the irrigation district’s perception is “unfortunate,” as the agency is trying to comply with the court order and the request for repayment hasn’t delayed the process.

The agency must account for diversions from “live” stream flows versus stored water, both from the lake as well as below it, she said.

“We need to make sure that we are justly distributing water for all water right holders involved,” Rancier said in an email. “Unfortunately, the department does not have key inputs into the ‘math’ equation to understand how much stored water (as opposed to natural flow) the BOR is releasing.”

As part of the investigation, the OWRD expects it will have to expend staff hours inspecting points of diversion for 30 irrigators around Upper Klamath Lake and 85 points of diversion for irrigators below Link River Dam below the reservoir.

The agency also expects its employees will have to “follow up with measuring device orders” and conduct “compliance check and inspections.”

That’s a concerning development for the Oregon Farm Bureau, which fears the installation of such devices will be “very expensive” for the farmers, said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the group.

“I’d be very surprised if half of them know this is before the commission or that it’s the department’s long term plan,” she said. “Why on earth are you not communicating with people that this is coming?”

Depending on diversion type, devices may cost $500 to $1,000 apiece, but they may also cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, Cooper said.

Historically, the agency would have had cost share dollars available to help irrigators with the financial burden but that money has recently dried up due to plummeting tax revenues associated with the coronavirus pandemic, she said.

For that reason, the Farm Bureau is urging the OWRD hold off on hiring staff for the investigation until it can notify and communicate with affected farmers about its plans.

The agency should also ensure cost share dollars are available and determine that information from such devices is actually necessary, according to Farm Bureau.

“Because it’s from a court order, they seem to be washing their hands of that responsibility,” Cooper said.


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              Page Updated: Sunday September 13, 2020 01:09 PM  Pacific

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