Faltering on the Klamath

There may be yet another important lesson in what is happening right now on the Klamath River, land of a bunch of very important water management lessons.

The Klamath once was a symbol of all that is wrong with water management in the western United States (a battleground, lesson one) that had come to symbolize all that could be right (a historic collaborative agreement to overcome the fighting, lesson two). Now there is a risk that we may be headed back to the first.

Brett Walton (Circle of Blue) and Emma Marris (New York Times) provide background, and I’d like to highlight a critical part of Brett’s piece that may provide lesson three:

Signed in 2010 and expanded in 2014, the three Klamath agreements were hailed as a model for watersheds that must realign water supply and demand. The three agreements, amounting to the largest watershed restoration project in the West, covered federal lands, funding, and water rights that require Congressional review and approval. But if Congress does not pass a bill by December 31, 2015 that authorizes the new management practices in the package and provides funding to facilitate the transition, three Indian tribes that are party to the agreements have indicated that they will pull out because of inaction.

To say that the agreements were a locally negotiated solution is right as far as it goes, but the fact that the deal(s) required Congressional action means that in important ways it was not entirely a local solution.

As soon as you need federal funding for a deal – as soon as you need to tap into “other people’s money”, as David Zetland puts it, other people’s values come into play as well. Whether this is simply because Congress is dysfunctional, or because there are members of Congress who actually object to the deal, there’s a lesson here: if you want to work out a collaborative water deal at the local or regional scale, best to keep Congress out of it.

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