Federal Misspending on Delta Tunnels, Klamath Exposed: Is Reclamation Beyond Reclamation?

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Washington, DC — The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the group that filed the original complaint resulting in the audit exposing the $84.8 million in illegal Bureau of Reclamation payments to the California Department of Water Resources for the planning of Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels project, on September 11 issued a statement concluding that the Bureau of Reclamation is “now beyond reclamation.”

“Three recent federal audits have found the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation misspending more than $100 million in funds but the agency has not committed to any meaningful reforms nor to punishing any responsible officials,” according to PEER. “The latest audit, last week, identified $84.8 million in improper Bureau of Reclamation payments to the State of California for its controversial Delta Tunnel Project. Despite this finding, the Bureau has no stated plans to recover even a penny.”

“Three recent critical audits arose from reports by Reclamation’s own employees represented by PEER. In the latest report on Friday, the Inspector General (IG) for the U.S. Department of Interior concluded that Reclamation illegally siphoned off funds to benefit fish and wildlife for the Delta Tunnel, a project to trans-ship vast quantities of freshwater from the Sacramento River and Delta to the south.  This project does not benefit fish and wildlife – just the opposite – but will principally benefit south-state irrigators,” PEER said.

This is the third recent “scathing report” on Reclamation misappropriations, according to the whistleblower group:

In late August, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded that Reclamation illegally gave $32 million to Klamath Basin irrigators, again misusing funds earmarked for protecting fish and wildlife.  This ruling validated an earlier IG report confirming whistleblower disclosures; and
In October, the IG found that Reclamation never collected “repayment of millions of dollars of costs incurred to design, construct, and operate and maintain new head gates and fish screens” within the Klamath Project. These gates and screens are supposed to keep federally protected fish “in the river and out of the Klamath project irrigation canals
The misuse of funds in the Klamath Basin couldn’t have come at a worse time. The number of fall Chinook salmon predicted to return to the Klamath and Trinity rivers in 2017 — approximately 11,000 fish — is the lowest on record, a result of two consecutive juvenile fish disease outbreaks and other factors, including water diversions, dams, drought and ocean conditions.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council closed recreational and commercial salmon fishing in the Klamath Management Zone this season. Recreational fishing for fall run Chinook is banned on the Trinity and Klamath rivers this year.

The Yurok Tribe had to cancel its commercial salmon season on the lower Klamath this fall for the second time in a row, while the quotas for subsistence and ceremonial salmon fisheries by the Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes have been slashed. The Karuk Tribe has also voluntarily limited its traditional dip net fishery below Ishi-Pishi Falls this season also.

“This is a nightmare. I have never in my life dreamed that it could get this bad,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr.,” Chairman of the Yurok Tribe, in March of this year. “This is devastating to our people, not only physically but emotionally. It’s saddening and hard to believe.”

Meanwhile, at Reclamation, “even massive misappropriation means never having to say you are sorry,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that all three cases arose out of one Reclamation office – the Mid-Pacific Region. “Reclamation’s posture of denying wrongdoing but promising not to do it again merely suggests it will seek out other shady ruses rather than genuinely reform its grant process.”

PEER said it has has been pressing both Reclamation’s parent agency, the Department of Interior, as well as the U.S. Congress to step in, “but to no avail thus far.”

PEER said it also proposed a series of reforms to prevent future lapses in Reclamation financial agreements, “but these issues were not even raised” during the pending nomination of Brenda Burman by President Donald Trump to serve as the next Commissioner of Reclamation.

The controversial Burman currently serves as the Director of Water Policy for Arizona’s Salt River Project. Prior to that, she worked for the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California, one of the key promoters of the Delta Tunnels project.

“As long as Reclamation suffers no consequences for repeated, blatant misconduct to the detriment of both the taxpayer and its mission, nothing will change,” emphasized Dinerstein, pointing out that there appears to be no effort to collect any of the funds handed out in illegal or unauthorized grants.  “We are frustrated that the relevant Congressional committees are also shirking their responsibilities. Unfortunately in the current Congress, oversight seems to be synonymous with overlook.”

The California Natural Resources Agency that received the illegal payments for planning for the Delta Tunnels from the Bureau of Reclamation did not respond to my request for a comment on the audit released on Friday, September 8.  Nor did the Westlands Water District respond to my request for a comment regarding the audit. 

To read my piece on the federal audit exposing the $84.8 million of Reclamation funds misused for Delta Tunnels funding, go to: https://t.co/iuXGiZDsbf