President jumps into Klamath crisis


By TAM MOORE, Capital Press

Oregon - 3/11/02 - President George Bush told three Cabinet secretaries late last week to get on with solving problems brought on by the 2001 drought and conflict between endangered species habitat and water for a 97-year-old federal irrigation project.

“Complex federal and state legal issues have made for difficult times in the Klamath River Basin,” Bush said in a statement accompanying a memorandum directing the secretaries of Interior, Agriculture and Commerce to form the Klamath River Basin Federal Working Group.

It’s charged with finding short- and long-term solutions to basin water problems brought to national attention by the April 2001 order canceling irrigation deliveries to 90 percent of farmland within the Klamath Project astride the California-Oregon border near Klamath Falls, Ore.

“We look at this as a clear sign of his commitment,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of Klamath Water Users Association. “It’s going to take some powerful people to pull this all together; it’s a real challenge.”

After a series of weekend water-user leadership meetings and phone calls, which included an indication that Bush will involve himself in other ways, pointing toward a Klamath solution, Keppen said the association will press Interior Secretary Gale Norton to “assign an individual point person” to Klamath issues.

That link is critical to assuring ideas from the Cabinet-level group “are being implemented at the local level,” Keppen said.

Norton is directed to head the working group, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality is given a seat along with the three Cabinet secretaries. In effect, the working group is a stripped-down version of the Klamath Task Force proposed in the Senate version of the farm bill.

That legislation is caught up in congressional conference committee negotiations this week; some observers say it may take weeks to reconcile the legislation with House and Senate $3.7 billion dollars apart on added spending.

“It’s proof positive that we’ve succeeded in elevating this issue to the highest levels of the federal government,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. “I know from personal conversations with the president that he’s very committed to fixing problems in the basin and getting water to farmers and ranchers.”

Bush’s action came two days after U.S. Bureau of Reclamation delivered a final biological assessment for Klamath Project operations from 2002 through 2012.

Reclamation Commissioner John Keys was reported saying preliminary snowpack information indicates project farmers should get full water supply this year. Others close to the situation say there’s no assurance until Endangered Species Act consultations are over and BuRec issues the actual 2002 operating plan.

Historically, Klamath Project irrigation season starts April 1.

Norton’s staff met March 5 to put the working group into motion. Eric Ruff, a spokesman for the secretary, said the full working group holds its organizing session the afternoon of March 8.

“There are a couple of things they could decide to take action on,” Ruff said, but he predicted most of the meeting will deal with potential issues as seen by the three departments and CEQ.

A CEQ staff member, Bill Leary, participated in the May 2001 Klamath issues conference held less than two months after BuRec withheld Klamath Project water. Chairman Alice Kilham of the Klamath River Compact Commission said last week Leary has continued work on ways to coordinate federal agencies.

Interior already has two Klamath advisory groups, in addition to the compact commission formed by the states of California and Oregon plus the federal government. The Klamath River Fisheries Task Force has studied downstream issues for more than 15 years. The 7-year-old Upper Basin Working Group concentrates on habitat above Iron Gate Dam. Each has unfunded project wish lists, including one on additional upper basin water storage locations that BuRec is investigating under a 2000 appropriation.

Ruff said he has no idea how those project lists, or the $175 million Klamath appropriation that’s in the Senate farm bill, will play in relation to the Cabinet working group’s study.

There’s no connection between the Klamath amendment in the farm bill and the Bush-ordered working group, Ruff said.

“Advise the president on immediate steps and long-term solutions to enhance water quality and quantity and to deal with other complex issues in the Klamath River Basin.”

- March 1 memorandum order by President Bush

The secretary of Interior is directed to preside over a group of federal employees drawn from the departments of Agriculture, Interior and Commerce plus the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“Members are encouraged to seek input from stakeholders, including members of the farming and fishing communities; residents of the basin; representatives of conservation, environmental, and water-use organizations, and existing coordinating entities; the states of Oregon and California; local governments; and representatives of Klamath River Basin Tribal governments.”

Bush told the Cabinet secretaries to get the package together not later than July 31, 2003.


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