A new audit finds that Klamath irrigators should not have received millions of dollars in taxpayer money. The money was used to pay farmers not to use scarce water supplies from streams and rivers in the Klamath Basin straddling Oregon and California.
The Inspector General audit comes after two whistleblowers accused the Bureau of Reclamation and the now-defunct Klamath Water and Power Agency, or KWAPA, of misusing public funds.
Over the course of seven years Reclamation paid KWAPA $32.2 million in part to run a water mitigation program that compensated farmers for switching to groundwater or idling their land in low-water years.
“In order for the federal government to give money to an outside agency such as KWAPA, there has to be a specific law authorizing them to give that money,” said attorney Paula Dinerstein of the whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
One of the laws that the Bureau of Reclamation relied on was the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, which requires the money be used “in the development, protection, rearing, and stocking of all species of wildlife, resources thereof, and their habitat.”
The Bureau of Reclamation and KWAPA argued that the water saved as a result of the irrigator pay-outs would be used to benefit fish and wildlife at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge just south of the Oregon-California border. But the audit found the refuge got far less water than promised and that the water it did get didn’t arrive at a time of year when it would actually make a difference for the animals and fish in the refuge.
“And as we said to begin with, and the Inspector General is now saying, it was not used to benefit fish and wildlife, it was used to benefit irrigators,” Dinerstein said.
The Inspector General’s report does not point to misdeeds by any irrigator, rather focuses on agency money-allocation and program implementation concerns.
The Bureau of Reclamation has responded to the report and denied wrong-doing.
The audit makes three recommendations for the Bureau going forward, one of which is cutting funding for water supplementation and demand reduction unless they have proper legal authority. The Bureau says it does “not concur” with this change.
“If we’re not able to use water banking as a tool, that removes probably one of the most viable tools in our tool box to work with the various water uses and demands within the basin,” says Jeff Nettleton, Klamath area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.
Now the Inspector General’s audit and the Bureau of Reclamation’s responses will be sent up the ladder within the Department of Interior for a separate assessment. The Office of Special Counsel will also make a determination on the broader issues originally raised by the two whistleblowers.