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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Klamath River Basin: Background and Issues

Charles V. Stern, Coordinator
Analyst in Natural Resources Policy

Harold F. Upton
Analyst in Natural Resources Policy

Pervaze A. Sheikh
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Cynthia Brougher
Legislative Attorney

Bill Heniff Jr.
Analyst on Congress and the Legislative Process

The Klamath River Basin on the California-Oregon border is a focal point for local and national discussions on water allocation and species protection. Previously, water and species management issues have exacerbated competition and generated conflict among several interests—farmers, Indian tribes, commercial and sport fishermen, federal wildlife refuge managers, environmental groups, and state, local, and tribal governments. As is true in many regions in the West, the federal government plays a prominent role in the Klamath Basin’s waters. This role stems primarily from (1) operation and management of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Water Project; (2) management of federal lands, including six national wildlife refuges; and (3) implementation of federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act.

Allocation of the Klamath Basin’s water has been contentious in the past. Controversy peaked in 2001 when the federal government halted irrigation water deliveries to protect species listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Efforts to permanently settle many of the basin’s water and species issues stepped up between 2002 and 2010, and were led by the federal government.

In 2010, the Secretary of the Interior and the governors of Oregon and California, along with multiple interest groups, announced the result of these negotiations: two interrelated settlement agreements, supported by the federal government and signed by numerous other parties. These agreements are meant to address many of the previous conflicts in the basin. The first agreement, known as the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), provides for restoration, water deliveries, and related actions, including a defined range of water supplies for Reclamation project users as well as projects to restore and protect threatened and endangered fish species. The second agreement, known as the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), lays out a process for studies and a decision by the Secretary of the Interior regarding whether the removal of four dams in the Lower Klamath Basin (funded by power customers in Oregon and California, as well as the State of California) would be in the public interest. Together, removal of these dams would constitute the largest dam removal project ever undertaken.

Forty groups are signatories (or “parties”) to the Klamath agreements. Supporters of the agreements include the states of Oregon and California, three area tribes, Reclamation project irrigators, environmental interests, and other groups. Opponents of the agreement include some non-Reclamation project (“off-project”) irrigators, as well as a subset of environmental groups, tribes, and area residents who disagree with some or all of the agreements. While the Obama Administration endorsed the Klamath agreements, Congress has to formally authorize most provisions for the federal government to become a “party” and move forward with most actions.

In order to be fully implemented, both of these agreements require explicit authorization by Congress. Legislation currently before Congress (H.R. 3398 and S. 1851) would authorize the agreements, including approximately $800 million for federal actions (mostly in the KBRA). Considerations related to the Klamath agreements may include whether the federal government is obligated to act beyond current activities in the Klamath Basin (and, if so, to what extent), and what specific strategies should be authorized.

This report is divided into two parts: the first part provides a brief overview of issues in the Klamath Basin, with a focus on the federal government’s role in region. The second part focuses on the Klamath agreements and related issues for Congress in considering this legislation.

Date of Report:
February 1, 2012
Number of Pages:
Order Number: R
Price: $29.95

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