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Klamath drought relief passes U.S. SenateKlamath drought relief passes U.S. Senate

The bill adds flexibility in how up to $10 million in Water Resources Development Act funds may be used.

Tim Hearden

July 2, 2020

2 Min Read
Klamath Basin crosses
Crosses planted in a field alongside Highway 97 south of Klamath Falls, Ore., represent farmers and businesspeople in the Klamath Basin whose livelihoods are threatened by water shortages.Tim Hearden

The U.S. Senate has approved a bill that lawmakers say will provide needed relief to Klamath Basin irrigators facing water cutbacks this summer because of drought.

Oregon’s Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden announced July 1 they helped fix language in the 2018 Water Resources Development Act, adding more flexibility in how drought relief funds may be used.

The law provides up to $10 million a year in relief funds for water users in the basin straddling the Oregon-California state line. The new legislation will better enable irrigators to access the funding when there is a severe shortage of water, as there is this year, the senators said.

“As the Basin grapples with a particularly difficult season, this correction will allow farmers to access much-needed resources as they continue long-term work to address water supply challenges in the region,” Merkley said.

The original bill provided funding for the Bureau of Reclamation to work with farmers and ranchers in the basin to align water demand with available supply, a news release explains. The technical correction allows irrigators to access the money for such things as land idling and groundwater pumping in times of drought, the lawmakers said.

The technical fix “is long overdue” and “couldn’t come at a better time,” said U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., whose Eastern Oregon district includes part of the Klamath Basin.

Related:Supreme Court punts on Klamath takings case

A stand-alone bill

Merkley, who sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, initially inserted the language into the Senate’s WRDA reauthorization for 2020, but that bill has languished in recent weeks. So he and Wyden pushed a stand-alone bill while Walden introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives, which still awaits action.

The larger WRDA reauthorization – S.3591 – would authorize 26 navigation, flood control, storm damage and other infrastructure projects totaling about $17 billion while also reapproving federal support for clean water infrastructure projects and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, according to the National Law Review.

Paul Simmons, the Klamath Water Users Association’s executive director, credits Oregon’s delegation for pushing the Klamath Basin proposal forward.

“We cannot adequately express our appreciation for Senator Merkley’s leadership and efforts to make this happen in the U.S. Senate,” he said. “And the bill could not have passed the Senate without Senator Wyden’s hard work or Representative Walden’s key role in explaining to the Senate majority that this is a good thing. Our congressional delegation’s bipartisan approach to Klamath Basin issues is refreshing and welcome.”

Related:Some water restored for Klamath Basin farmers

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows the Klamath Basin to be in severe drought this summer. The conditions prompted the Bureau of Reclamation to allocate 140,000 acre-feet of water to the Klamath Irrigation Project, or about 40 percent of the water the project gets from Upper Klamath Lake in a normal year.

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