Siskiyou Land Conservancy
Protecting California’s Wild North Coast and Rivers Since 2004

The Value of Water and the Great Klamath Giveaway

Siskiyou Land Conservancy President Greg King delivered the following address at the Humboldt Watershed Council’s annual meeting on Nov. 20, 2009 in Arcata.

Good evening. I’m honored to be presenting the Klamath River to this particular audience. Many thanks to Humboldt Watershed Council, Bill and Carlos, for asking me. There is no shortage of individuals who could make this address. The dedication shown to this fantastic river by residents and activists living in the huge, 12,000-square-mile Klamath watershed, and by people living well removed from the Klamath basin, is a testament to the cultural and biological importance of this great river. It also speaks to the river’s powers of seduction.

I am one of the many people who have been seduced by the Klamath River. In August of 2002 I traveled to the mid-Klamath River to look at a property for sale in the foothills of the Salmon Mountains. I was living with my family in Sonoma County, but Joanne and I both desired a return to the North Coast. So that month we made an offer to buy the property. One month later 68,000 Klamath salmon died in the largest adult fish kill in U.S. history. In October we closed the deal, and in November we moved to the Klamath River.

The Klamath so big — in fact its subbasins are so big, that trying to present some sort of State of the Klamath in a short talk is impossible. I could spend two hours just on the Scott River, where the state department of Fish and Game has handed over creation of an incidental take permit (ITP) for Coho salmon to the farmers who would be most affected by an ITP. The ITP was predictably terrible, and it is being litigated. But the situation in the Scott River is so horrible, with farmers taking up to 90 percent of the river’s flow during the dry season, that Coho could simply disappear from the best remaining Coho river on the Klamath. The situation on the Shasta River, the Klamath’s best tributary for Chinook salmon, is similarly dire.

Scott River, Sep. 2, 2009


Seemingly, though, what’s on everyone’s Klamath mind these days is the co-agreements forged over a three-year period to remove dams and guarantee water for upriver farmers. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, or KBRA, and the Klamath Hydro Agreement are intimately linked by an indivisibility clause that disallows codifying one without the other. And that’s really too bad. Dam removal should be a stand-alone agreement, because the four Klamath dams in question have nothing to do with upriver farming. But upriver farming has everything to do with whether or not fish downstream have enough water to survive. And it has everything to do with whether or not that water will be relatively clean and full of the oxygen that fish need, or poisoned by agricultural chemicals and lacking oxygen due to elevated levels of nutrients and ammonia as a result of upriver farming.

Living in the basin, the anger stemming from the fish kill was palpable. But it was also focused. It had to be. Everyone was well aware that another fish kill of that magnitude could wipe out Klamath salmon runs altogether. Many salmon advocates were able to focus on one very clear culprit. In 2002 the Bush Administration, under able direction from the vice-president, leaned on federal scientists to deliver Klamath water to upper basin farmers even though the fishery was likely to suffer, and even though the federal Endangered Species Act should have prevented it. The Administration was unhappy about a four-fold reduction in water allocations to farmers that occurred the previous year, which resulted in about 100,000 acre feet of water going to the farmers, instead of the 400,000 acre feet they would have wanted. Many farmers suffered crop losses as a result, but the fish were saved from certain doom. So it was that in 2002 the farmers did get their 400,000 acre-feet of Klamath water, more than half of the river’s flow at the A Canal diversion, and the fish died.

For it’s part the Administration didn’t care about the fish, or the farmers for that matter. They cared about the 2002 reelection campaign of their Republican ally Senator Gordon Smith. Farmers were a key component of Smith’s constituency. In 2002 the farmers got their water, and Smith was reelected by a narrow margin.

As I said, the response to the fish kill was focused. Many tribal members and conservationists who for years had fought openly and bitterly with farmers over water were compelled to negotiate more amicably. The farmers, likewise, were looking for a way to prevent another water cut-off. The result is the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Hydro Agreement: the water deal and the dam removal deal. Here I will focus primarily on the KBRA, because whereas the hydro agreement is deeply flawed — it allows too many years to pass before dam removal is to begin, if it begins at all; it lets PacifiCorp off the financial hook by saddling Oregon rate payers and California taxpayers with a $450 million obligation even though all estimates place the price tag for dam removal at $200 million or less; and it would indemnify PacifiCorp from liability due to its past practices on the river — while the KHA has a lot of problems, it could probably maybe someday result in dam removal. Maybe.

The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, on the other hand, could very well turn out to be worse than nothing. The existence and predominance of the KBRA in this setting illustrates that these agreements are not about dam removal as much as they are about water. To get to my point I’ll jump over to the Trinity River.

Trinity River at Hoopa Valley


At 3,000 square miles the Trinity is the Klamath’s largest tributary. Fights over Trinity water are legendary. Along with the Salmon River, the Trinity River provides the Klamath’s best remaining habitat for spring-run Chinook salmon, which nonetheless today teeter on the brink of extinction. And except for 30,000 acre-feet of water pumped each year from the upper Klamath basin to the Rogue River, in Oregon, the Trinity is the only tributary whose waters are diverted outside of the Klamath basin. And it’s a lot water — in some years more than 1 million acre feet is transferred annually to the Sacramento River en route to massive Central Valley agricultural operations and major cities. In 2006, 1.3 million acre feet went east out of the basin.

Last week California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger successfully passed through the state legislature his $11 billion water bond measure that would build more dams and a peripheral canal that would more than likely further wreck the Sacramento-San Joaquin ecosystem, despite whatever restoration provisions that bond may contain. What went less noticed is that at around the same time the federal Bureau of Reclamation petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board for an extension to the year 2030 on certain Central Valley Project water rights permits, including seven on the Trinity River. According to the Trinity Journal, the permits were originally granted to Reclamation in 1959, but they were never developed. If utilized, these permits could result in an additional hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of Trinity River water heading annually over the ridge to be consumed by powerful agribusiness. This would devastate the Trinity River.

But the farmers need more water, right? Well, not really. Conservation measures — like not using sprinklers at noon on a hot day — and diversifying crops — you know, growing rice and cotton in a desert is like fishing in a sandbox — would do more to save water than sending more water to farmers would do to save agriculture.

That’s because there’s another angle to this story: the value of the water itself. California’s powerful agricultural interests and water districts are vying for water not just because they’d like more of it right now for their crops, but because water is a crop, it’s a futures commodity.

Already many farmers in the Central Valley Project are selling their water to cities, counties and municipal water districts rather than use it to grow crops. Lloyd Carter, a former Central Valley reporter credited with uncovering the bird deformities at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the mid 1980s, puts it succinctly in a video recently produced by the California Water Impact Network: “Water is cash,” said Carter. “And the water in the public treasury, which is the stored river water of California, belongs to the people of California. Because of a law that was passed in 1992, agribusinessmen are free to take their federal irrigation water and resell that water on the open market in California. So you can buy water from the federal government for $70 an acre-foot, and you can sell it for $350 to $400 an acre-foot to anyone who’s willing to pay that price. Water has become the new cash crop.”
And yet Carter might be understating the potential here. A couple of months ago a Central Valley farmer agreed to sell 14,000 acre-feet of water to the Mojave Water Agency in San Bernardino County for $5,500 an acre-foot, or a tidy $77 million.

That’s Sacramento River water from the Central Valley Project, which of course in large part is Trinity River water. At these prices the annual diversion from the Trinity River could be worth upward of $5.5 billion.

Now let’s move to the upper Klamath, where the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement would guarantee farmers 330,000 to 385,000 acre feet of water every year. Notwithstanding Dick Cheney’s Mussolinian achievement in 2002, farmers in the upper basin have never been guaranteed water from the Klamath Reclamation Project. The lack of such a guarantee, combined with a mandate to protect Coho salmon as provided by the Federal Endangered Species Act, is what led the Bureau of Reclamation to reduce water deliveries to upper basin farmers in 2001.

Nonetheless, under the negotiated KBRA settlement farmers are guaranteed water but the fish are not. There is no flow guarantee for fish in the KBRA. Why is that? Because the key sections of KBRA dealing with water allocation were essentially written by Paul Simmons, the Sacramento attorney for the Klamath Water Users Association, a powerful interest group whose members irrigate more than 200,000 acres in the Upper Klamath Basin. In 1984 Simmons graduated cum laude from Cornell law school, where he also served as editor-in-chief of the Cornell International Law Journal. He’s a partner in the national law firm Somach, Simmons and Dunn, whose clients include dozens of municipalities and water districts that rely on water from the north and would no doubt be happy to see even more of it head their way.

Early in Klamath dam removal negotiations Simmons made certain that his clients would get their water before anyone else in the room got anything. Certainly there were many others who contributed to creating what would become the KBRA — with dam removal itself relegated to separate agreement — which created a “Christmas tree” deal totaling 300 pages of legalese, and containing far too many conflicting and unwieldy provisions. But the imprateur of the deal was caste from the start when Simmons demanded a guaranteed water allocation for ag in order for talks to proceed, despite the fact that upper river farmers have nothing to do with the Klamath dams. They don’t get water from the reservoirs behind the dams, they don’t get flood control, and their power subsidy was phasing out.

But they did get the Bush Administration in their corner, and that was their trump in this game. The farmers were essentially able to get a seat at the table by hooking the proverbial thumb over the shoulder at a smirking Cheney and saying, “You either deal with us or you deal with him.”

But of course, subsequently negotiators had to deal with the Bush Administration anyway. In 2007 Steve Thompson, appointed by Bush to manage the US Fish and Wildlife Service California-Nevada Operations Office, joined Simmons and certain tribal members in an organized assault on the two most able and outspoken groups in the negotiations at that time. Oregon Wild and Oregon WaterWatch were providing expert legal objections to the KBRA’s water give-away, as well as it’s provision to allow 50 more years of chemically intensive agriculture on 22,000 acres of the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, which any ornithologist worth his field glasses would say shouldn’t be allowed at all. With assistance from a couple of key allies who work for the tribal governments that support the KBRA, Thompson and Simmons were able to orchestrate the removal of Oregon Wild and WaterWatch from the negotiations.

That left the Northcoast Environmental Center and the Hoopa Tribe as the only negotiators in the room, out of 26 remaining parties, that openly opposed many of the provisions of the KBRA. There is not enough time to go into all those provisions now, but you can check them out on our web site, where you’ll find the full KBRA analysis I wrote for the NEC, and which is still current. The NEC continues to take a pro-active track on the deals, and I encourage you to contact them or check out their web site for more information.

What I want to emphasize here, along with the fact that much of the KBRA falls within the realm of a dangerous sham, is the value of the water in the Klamath River. Take an average water year of, say, 370,000 acre feet delivered to Klamath farmers from the Klamath Reclamation Project. Add to that 100,000 acre feet or more pumped out of the ground annually with taxpayer subsidized pumps and delivery systems, and what do you think that water is going to be worth to a thirsty southland in 20 years? Even at a meager $400 an acre-foot that water could be worth more than $200 million. But that price is so 1999. What about in 2030, with climate change continuing to dry up California’s battered water delivery system, and not coincidentally its watersheds, which is not only the prediction of all the climate models, but it’s happening right now. The Sierra snowpack, which feeds California’s key reservoirs, is all but disappearing. The people in the south part of the state charged with finding more water are mostly looking northward. Water is California’s new Gold Rush.

At this point supporters of the KBRA will make one of dozens of reasoned, studied, rational arguments they’ve got for why concerns over the agreement are unfounded. I like to believe a lot of these arguments, such as: Flows at Iron Gate can run lower than the current court-ordered minimum of 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) once dams are out, because the water will be colder and cleaner. I really want to believe that, because if the KBRA goes into effect flows will definitely run below 1,000 cfs. Modeling used by tribal and government scientists to judge what the flows might be under the KBRA with dams out show the river running as low as 414 cfs in the driest years. Fish kill flows in 2002 were around 700 cfs. When I point that out they say, oh, it’ll never go as low as 414 because we’re going to create a technical advisory team and a drought plan to prevent all of that. And I hope this is true. It just gives me pause to remember that when I recommended that the TAT and the drought plan be created before the KBRA is implemented I was ignored and even chastised, including by a couple of the big green groups in the room.

Let me say here that negotiators are in a tough spot. Beginning with the Bush Administration’s stranglehold over the early proceedings — kowtowing as they were to Big Ag and directly threatening another dangerously low Klamath River during salmon migration if farmers didn’t get guaranteed water deliveries — and then through subsequent negotiations in which the administration’s representatives expertly manipulated the meetings, it wasn’t easy even for the hydro experts at American Rivers and Trout Unlimited to craft a healthy, workable agreement. But that’s doesn’t excuse American Rivers, CalTrout, and Trout Unlimited, as well as negotiators for the United States, the states of California and Oregon, and three of the four tribes in the room, for agreeing to a guaranteed water delivery to farmers of up to 385,000 acre-feet. This was done without any public notice or review or input, and no public meetings as one might expect to be mandated under the National Environmental Policy Act or the California Environmental Quality Act. None of the otherwise fine and useful restoration measures subsequently added to the KBRA will suffice to undo the damage of the ag water allocation should it result in another fish kill. And it very well could.

Back to the cash value of Klamath water. Supporters of the KBRA have tried to convince me that such value is irrelevant because the KBRA contains an “out-of-basin transfer” provision that would prevent sending the water outside of the Klamath. Well, assuming that the out-of-basin provision survives legislation needed to codify the KBRA, as well as subsequent legislation that may arise as the West’s water crises deepen, what does the “out-of-basin transfer” provision say? It says this:

“The Parties (except state agencies with direct decisional authority over such transfers) shall make all reasonable efforts to oppose any additional out-of-basin water transfers from the Klamath River Basin.”

Iron clad! Really, that provision doesn’t say anything, it doesn’t prevent anything. Yet almost everyone in the negotiating room — half the green groups, three of the four tribes, the states and the feds and even the fishing groups — just sort of rolled their eyes and said live with it … and then they rolled over. They rolled over throughout this deal. They rolled because there are very powerful forces at the top levels of government and commerce who are allied to accrue water. Water today is the most valued commodity in the world. It is worth more than gold, more than oil, even more than food. It’s why upper Klamath River farmers have reportedly paid more than $1 million in legal fees since the beginning of KBRA negotiations. If a Central Valley farmer can earn $77 million for 14,000 acre-feet of water, then a million bucks might seem like a worthy gambit to farmers who stand to control the rights to hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water.

A few years ago I traveled to Montreal to interview the great performer and activist Bruce Cockburn. Cockburn himself has traveled extensively as a witness to human tragedy and injustice, which he found well represented in the drought-stricken countries of Somalia and Mali. Cockburn told me, “We’re going to run out of water, for one thing. I’ve been to places where people already don’t have easy access to clean water. There’s hardly any pure water left in the world, and nobody’s doing much to remedy that or even prevent it from getting worse. If we’re not careful there will be wars fought over water. Fighting for oil is nothing compared to what will happen when the world starts fighting over water.”

A response might be that in California we’re not fighting a war over water. We’re working things out diplomatically, politically. But not all wars involve guns. In 2002 the Bush Administration attacked an ecosystem, and 68,000 salmon died. Are these fish not victims? What about the Klamath’s indigenous people, who have lived in the basin for time immemorial … who have nurtured and survived on salmon for 10,000 years without depleting the resource … who pray for the salmon, and who love and revere this mighty fish as if family? Now that the entire Karuk tribe is down to catching about 100 salmon every year, the fish inhabit the realm of ceremony rather than sustenance. The salmon have become ghosts. Are the Karuk not victims in this particular water war? The Yurok? The Hoopa? The Shasta? The Klamath tribes? How about the sport and commercial fishing industry? How about the people who live along the banks of the Klamath who can no longer walk their dogs there or allow their children to even touch the water, it’s so toxic due to the war against this ecosystem?

Boaters brave the toxic, algae-choked waters of Iron Gate Reservoir. The algae creates a toxin called microcystin, which is consequently found 190 miles downstream at the mouth of the Klamath River.


Like many people with an intimate connection to the Klamath basin, I live with these issues in my heart and in my thoughts. The Klamath River has inhabited my soul. I am grateful for that. I am fortunate to have garnered even this limited knowledge of the cultures and politics of the Klamath basin, and I am blessed to have discovered the places along the Klamath that I have come to know and love.

I took this photo two days ago on a ridge between two pure-water creeks draining off of the Salmon Mountains, in the heart of the 50,000-acre Orleans Mountain Roadless Area. The view is southwest into the Klamath basin as it winds from Orleans toward Weitchpec. To know this world is a privilege, to fight for its survival is an honor. Thank you.

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