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Alex Schwartz
Herald and News

For the first time since President Joe Biden took office, the Interior Department gathered a diverse group of irrigators, tribes and conservation groups scrambling over the Klamath Basin’s dwindling water supply — all under one (virtual) roof.

Though the feds couldn’t make it rain, they’re about to release a river of cash to help fix the watershed in the long term.

“Finally, after a long period of time, there are significant resources coming to this place that’s in the middle of a disaster,” said Jeff McCreary, director of operations for Ducks Unlimited’s Western Region. “That was used as a lever to bring everybody together.”

More than 100 people attended the all-day meeting on Feb. 10, representing stakeholder groups from the basin’s headwaters to the sea and the government agencies who help manage it. Federal bigwigs like Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland communicated Uncle Sam’s commitment to solving the basin’s complicated natural resource issues, which are only worsening due to climate change.

McCreary said the forum appeared to signal that the wide swath of groups who depend on the Klamath’s water are willing to come back to the table to talk for the first time since the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement failed in 2015.

But it remains to be seen how long they’re willing to stay there.

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For the first half of the meeting, staff from the Departments of Interior, Commerce and Agriculture explained how stakeholders could make use of billions made available by the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which gives federal agencies deep pockets to fund much-needed ecosystem restoration and agricultural modernization projects throughout the basin. The Fish and Wildlife Service also briefed participants on the selection process for projects for the $162-million ecosystem restoration fund made available specifically for the Klamath.

The watershed’s legislative delegation, including Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Reps. Cliff Bentz (R-Ore.), Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), appeared at the meeting, and Oregon Gov.Kate Brown and California Gov. Gavin Newsom also spoke about state funding opportunities. Finally, representatives of each stakeholder group introduced themselves on a panel discussing how the water crisis has affected them and what they hope for the future.

Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Paul Simmons said the forum’s organizers intended for a facilitated discussion among panel members, but that the introductions ate up all the time available. Still, he welcomed the opportunity for the Klamath to have the federal government’s ear for a good chunk of time.

“Clearly, we have the kind of attention that it takes to actually get things done,” Simmons said.

Don Gentry, Klamath Tribes Chairman, looks at the charred remains of Klamath ancestral lands burned in the Bootleg Fire. (Leah Nash/Underscore.news)

Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry said it was helpful to get everyone together in one room, albeit virtual.

“That’s something that we’ve advocated for. We’ve shared our concerns and hoped that that would happen. We think it’s key,” he said.

Karuk Tribe Spokesman Craig Tucker said the meeting partially felt like a pep talk from the feds, aimed to get stakeholders energized about spending the abundant infrastructure money, as opposed to arguing over water management policy in the basin. He appreciated the approach, especially ahead of a spring and summer that looks to be as dry — if not drier — than 2021.

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“I’d been a little anxious about the lack of the Administration helping us. We need a high-ranking person from the government to help us organize ourselves across state lines, tribal lines and federal agencies and departments,” he said. “We have not built our organizations to take advantage of a pretty big windfall of funding.”

Tucker said he hopes the money can help bring people together to focus on fixing the underlying harms that plague the basin’s hydrology. Just providing more water to endangered fish populations hasn’t helped them recover — stakeholders must also revive wetlands, restore streams and increase forest resiliency to truly heal the watershed. The KBRA provided a road map for those activities, in addition to outlining a water rights settlement between tribes and irrigators.

“Water’s half the story but habitat’s the other half,” Tucker said. “Ten years ago, we had a plan with no money. Now, we have money with no plan.”

McCreary said Secretary Haaland organized the panel of stakeholders with the intention of letting each group feel heard, which he felt was a good foundation for future collaboration.

“She wanted to make sure that people had the space to be able to say what they needed to say,” he said. “Everyone has to be heard and understood and be present. Getting people present is the first step.”

As Becky Mitchell, back left, and of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and U.S. Rep Diana DeGette, D-Colo., look on, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks during a news conference after Haaland's visit to talk about federal solutions to ease the effects of the drought at the offices of Denver Water Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Denver. Haaland will make stops in two cities on Colorado's Western Slope as part of her trip to assess the effects of the drought on the Centennial State. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Tucker said he felt hearing each side of the conflict say their piece, from irrigators talking about dry wells and farms to tribal leaders describing the loss of culturally important fish, was helpful for everyone. He said Secretary Haaland herself was “emotional” about the Klamath’s issues.

“It was very human. And the problems are real for everybody,” he said.

McCreary said Interior should designate a point person to work exclusively on Klamath-related issues and corral the dizzying array of people with an interest in the basin’s water. Every previous presidential administration since George W. Bush has done so, and a federal liaison helped lead negotiations that ultimately produced the KBRA.

The department designated environmental attorney Liz Klein, senior counselor to the secretary of the Interior, as the closest thing to a ‘Klamath czar’ last year, but many stakeholders feel that she should have a right-hand person dedicated specifically to the basin — given Klein’s other responsibilities at the federal level.

“How are the next conversations going to happen? Someone’s got to be leading that and organizing that and helping bring people together,” McCreary said.

Simmons said while this particular meeting centered around funding, he’d like future forums to also discuss issues parties have with water policy in the basin. KWUA argues that Reclamation’s interim operations plan for the Klamath Project, in effect through September 2022, is ill-adapted to the system’s consistently deteriorating hydrology and the agency’s obligations under federal law.

“It’s just colossally messed up. Unless and until that gets fixed, we’re going to be looking at these sorts of situations,” Simmons said. “We need to be focusing on getting a better situation for everybody in the basin through any and all means available, whether it’s funding or improved operations planning.”

Stakeholders said this first meeting was a largely positive development, but that it resulted in little actionable measures. Simmons said the feds indicated that it would be the first of a series of future meetings involving the wide swath of interests in the basin.

A news release from Interior said the Feb. 10 forum “concludes” a series of meetings focused on the BIL implementation that began on Jan. 24, when the department issued government-to-government consultation with six federally recognized tribes in the Klamath Basin regarding restoration initiatives. The release did not specify a schedule for future engagement sessions.

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