WASHINGTON, D.C. — Members of Oregon's Congressional delegation on Wednesday announced that the U.S. Senate has passed a "critically needed fix" to existing law intended to provide drought relief for farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin.
U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Representative Greg Walden said in a joint statement that the new legislation alters the 2018 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The law's language allowed irrigators in the Klamath Basin to access $10 million in drought relief funds, but limited how they could be used.
According to the lawmakers, the new technical correction provides "clear flexibility" in allowing farmers and ranchers to use that funding when there is a severe water shortage, which is the case this year.
“Through drought, wildfires, and now the coronavirus pandemic, Klamath Basin irrigators have shown they’re committed to working collaboratively with the many water stakeholders in the region, and it is imperative that the federal government step up and do all it can to assist,” Merkley 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 had tried to get the language include in the WRDA reauthorization, but changed tactics when the bill stalled in the Senate. Both Merkley and Wyden introduced a stand-alone bill for the fix, while Walden introduced a companion version of the bill in the House.
“We cannot adequately express our appreciation for Senator Merkley’s leadership and efforts to make this happen in the U.S. Senate,” said Paul Simmons, Executive Director of Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA). “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.”
Though the bill has passed the Senate, it still needs to be passed in the House.
“This technical fix is long overdue, and with the Klamath Basin facing a drought, this couldn’t come at a better time,” said Congressman Greg Walden (R-OR-2). “Our farmers in the basin need all the help they can get.”
The lawmakers said that the WRDA's original language authorized up to $10 million per year for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to work with irrigators to align water demand and supply. The new bill allows irrigators to directly access those funds for land idling or groundwater pumping in times of drought.
“Southern Oregon knows this will be a tough water year, and this bill would provide timely and vital clarity to free up money for farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin facing these challenges in real time,” Wyden said.