The Klamath River originates in Oregon, draining the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains, and cuts through the northwestern corner of California before emptying into the Pacific Ocean.

The Colorado River originates in Colorado, draining the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, before curving southwest and emptying into the Sea of ​​Cortez in Mexico – where water remains after California and other states have used the river for irrigation and utilities.

Although these two rivers are hundreds of miles apart, they share a common ailment: so much of their water has been impounded or diverted that it has become unhealthy.

The two rivers also have something else in common: taxpayers, not those who manipulated the rivers for profit, foot the bill for restoring their flows.

After decades of debate and negotiations, work has just begun to dismantle the first of four hydroelectric dams that dam the Klamath and block the migration of salmon, steelhead and other species. One of the dams is more than a century old.

The dams’ owner, PacificCorp, initially said it would seek relicensing of the four dams. But amid fierce opposition from environmentalists, fishermen (and women) and Native American tribes, and after billionaire Warren Buffett bought the company, the company agreed to remove them.

It is unlikely that the dams could be re-licensed given their age and opposition, so the company’s position was probably a bluff, but one that worked. After Buffett bought PacificCorp in 2005, his close friend, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger persuaded the Legislature to issue $250 million in government bonds ($500 million with interest) to secure the removal.

PacificCorp is contributing about $215 million, while Oregon, a major user of the dams’ hydropower, is contributing just a few million dollars. Why California taxpayers should pay such a large share of the removal costs remains an unanswered question.

On Monday, again after lengthy and often acrimonious negotiations, the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced a deal with several states to reduce the withdrawal of water from the Colorado River by about 3 million acre-feet over the next three years, averting a crisis that threatens the viability of two huge reservoirs in the upper reaches, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Three-quarters of the cuts will be provided by more than $1 billion in federal payments to stripers in Arizona, Nevada and California, and the rest will be voluntary cuts without compensation.

The Imperial Irrigation District, in California’s southeast corner, is the largest diverter, legally entitled to more than 3 million acre-feet of water a year, and thus will receive the bulk of the federal money. It is not surprising that the new agreement was positively evaluated in the district.

The deal was reached after the Bureau of Reclamation threatened to cut spending on Imperial and other diversions to prevent the two reservoirs from failing due to years of drought.

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

While the deal addresses the immediate crisis on the Colorado, many stakeholders will also be negotiating a supposed permanent pact on how the water will be distributed, with Imperial and other California diverters looking for even more federal money to offset their losses.

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

CalMatters is a public journalism enterprise dedicated to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters. Check out the comments for more Dan Walters stories.


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