Federal Funds for Drought-Stricken Fish Siphoned by Irrigators
Klamath Contracts Worsen Drought Conditions by Pumping More Groundwater
Washington, DC — A federal program that was supposed to help drought-stressed fish populations in the Klamath Basin has been hijacked for the sole benefit of select irrigators, according to a whistleblower disclosure filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Overall, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has spent nearly $70 million dollars without any apparent legal authority to do so.
The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Klamath Project, the main water works in Northern California and southern Oregon. The project provides water from Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River, including Clear Lake and Gerber Reservoirs, to 210,000 acres of cropland across a 5,700 square mile watershed, an area larger than Connecticut. In recent years, the area has been crippled by a series of droughts.
While the Bureau is supposed to work with Klamath Project irrigators, the relationship has gotten much too close, according to biologists. They point to a 2008 Reclamation contract with Klamath Water and Power Agency (KWAPA) for a feasibility study on the potential for water marketing to increase water supplies in the Klamath Basin for the benefit of fish and wildlife. The original five-year contract has been amended 17 times and extended through 2023, at a cost several times the original estimate. The feasibility study was never done and is long forgotten. Instead funds have been used to –
- Purchase water supply contracts benefitting a small group of irrigators despite a provision declaring that any water purchases would be “for the direct benefit of fish and wildlife habitat;”
- Pursue counterproductive, unsustainable, and short-term fixes to Klamath Basin water woes, such as pumping large amounts of groundwater until private wells go dry. This has required well owners to dig new and deeper wells into ever shrinking groundwater supplies; and
- Pay expenses of a semi-official association of Klamath Project irrigators, the KWAPA, including their salaries, fringe benefits, office space, equipment and travel.
“This contract has morphed beyond any recognizable shape from a feasibility study into a direct subsidy bearing no relationship to fish and wildlife,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein who filed the scientists’ disclosure with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. “It appears KWAPA just sucked in more and more government funds with little oversight and for no discernible benefit to the general public.”
The Office of Special Counsel, a federal whistleblower protection agency, is charged with reviewing the scientists’ disclosure and deciding within 15 days whether it evidences a “substantial likelihood of validity.” If so, the Special Counsel is supposed to direct the Secretary of Interior to conduct a formal investigation into systemic violations. If the violations are confirmed it could result in the reimbursement of unauthorized payments as well as punishment for responsible Reclamation officials.