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Government Whistleblowers Say Klamath Irrigators Misusing Federal Funds

Two government biologists say millions of dollars in federal funds intended to secure water for fish in the Klamath Basin were instead used to directly compensate local farmers and ranchers.

Irrigators have long come up against the water needs of fish and wildlife in the drought-prone region of Southern Oregon and Northern California. There isn’t enough surface water to go around, and efforts are underway to find other irrigation sources for agriculture.

Bureau of Reclamation whistleblower Todd Pederson said he first became suspicious of a contract between the Bureau and irrigation interests about 1.5 years ago. He saw invoices from the Klamath Water and Power Agency, the group responsible for securing water supplies for Klamath Project irrigators.

“There were invoices for office space, for salaries, for KWAPA employees, for water pumping, for land idling,” he says. “I’d like to see that those people responsible for this contract being in place for this long are held accountable.”

But that’s not what the funds are for, says Pederson and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the group he’s working with to make the complaint. They say those funds are intended, at least in part, to pay for a study to see if farmers can use groundwater instead of pulling water from the rivers.

“They’ve never done a feasibility study,” says PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein. “All they’ve done is spend money to buy water. And spend money to pay people not to grow crops. Then they had to spend money to pay well owners whose wells were running dry because they pumped so much water.”

Officials from the Klamath Water and Power Agency declined to comment for this story. But Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Erin Curtis says the feasibility study is currently underway.

“We’ve been basically on track throughout and we are on track to complete the feasibility study by the end of this year,” she says.

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<p>The Klamath Basin has seen many water shortages over the years.</p>

The Klamath Basin has seen many water shortages over the years.

Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.