California taxpayers hard-pressed to save two unsanitary western rivers | Open

The Klamath River begins in Oregon, drains the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains, and runs through the northwestern corner of California before emptying into the Pacific Ocean.

The Colorado River begins in Colorado, draining the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, before meandering southwest and emptying into Mexico’s Sea of ​​Cortez, if any water remains after California and other states have tapped the river for irrigation and supplies. municipal.

Though separated by hundreds of miles, the two rivers share a common disease: Much of their water was dammed or diverted, rendering it unsanitary.

The two rivers also share something else: Taxpayers, rather than those who rigged the rivers for profit, are footing the bill for restoring their flows.

After decades of debate and negotiation, work has just begun to dismantle the first of four hydroelectric dams that clog the Klamath and block the migration of salmon, rainbow trout and other species. One of the dams is over a century old.

The dams’ owner, PacificCorp, initially said it would seek renewal of the licenses for all four dams. But amid fierce opposition from environmentalists, fishermen (and women), and Native American tribes, and after the company was acquired by billionaire Warren Buffett, it agreed to eliminate them.

Given his age and the opposition, it’s unlikely the dams could be relicensed, so the company’s stance was probably bluffing, but it worked. After Buffett bought PacificCorp in 2005, his close friend, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, persuaded the Legislature to set aside $250 million in state bond funds ($500 million with interest) to finance removal.

PacificCorp provides about $215 million, while Oregon, the top user of hydroelectric power from the dams, provides only a few million dollars. Why should California taxpayers pay such a large part of moving costs? It remains an unanswered question.

On Monday, again after protracted and often acrimonious negotiations, the Federal Recovery Office announced a multi-state agreement to reduce water diversions from the Colorado River by about 3 million acre-feet over the next three years, thus avoiding a crisis. which threatens the viability of two huge upstream reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Three-quarters of the reduction would be supported by more than $1 billion in federal payments to diverters in Arizona, Nevada and California, while the rest would be uncompensated voluntary cuts.

The Imperial Irrigation District, in the southeast corner of California, is the largest diverter, legally entitled to more than 3 million acre-feet of water a year, and thus will receive a large chunk of federal money. Unsurprisingly, the district praised the new agreement.

A settlement was reached after the Bureau of Reclamation threatened to impose cuts on Imperial and other diversions to prevent the two reservoirs from being rendered inoperable by years of drought.

“California has worked to make significant cuts in water use, and now this historic partnership between California and other Lower Basin states will help maintain critical water supplies for millions of Americans as we work together to ensure long-term sustainability. run of the Colorado River. system for decades to come,” Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement.

While the agreement addresses the immediate crisis on the Colorado, the many interested parties will also negotiate a supposedly permanent deal on how the water will be shared and Imperial and other California diverters will seek even more federal money to offset their losses.

Both the Klamath and Colorado situations could, and probably should, have been resolved without taxpayers having to pay to compensate those whose actions had caused their problems in the first place. But, as the old saying goes, money talks while the bull walks.

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending most of those years working for California newspapers. He has written over 9,000 columns on California and his politics and his column has appeared in many other California newspapers. He writes for, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media company that explains California politics and politics.