Rally turnout shows support for ag

Jul 8, 2013

—Klamath water rights issue still ongoing.

Monday, July 1, the downtown streets of Klamath Falls were chock-full of cattle trailers, loghauling semis, and gooseneck trailers. There were signs, honks of support from passersby, and several speakers. The commotion was what turned out to be a surprisingly large grassroots rally to raise awareness about the importance of agriculture to the economy of the Klamath area.

The rally in Klamath Falls was in part a response to the recent ruling on the Klamath Basin water rights issue, an ongoing story covered in WLJ frequently in the past. Ranchers and farmers in the Upper Klamath Basin were earlier notified to cease all diversions for irrigating their pastures and crops after months of uncertainty about when or if their water rights would be pulled. The rally was to demonstrate to the community how important agriculture is to the community.

“What led up to the rally was mainly we needed to show a little awareness of how important agriculture is to the economy,” said affected Oregon rancher, Eric Duarte, on July 2, the day after the rally. “We decided nine days ago, ‘let’s see if we can gather up enough people for a rally.’” The answer was an emphatic “yes.”

Over 225 assorted big vehicles—trucks, semis, cattle trucks, hay trucks, local producers in their stock trailers, logging trucks, tractors, and even some local town merchants’ fleet trucks—and an estimated 1,000- 1,200 people “clogged up down town Klamath,” in this show of support and awareness.

And that was the plan, said Kyle Marino, president for Water of Life (the U.S.-based ag group with that name, not the international nongovernmental organization) and owner/operator of Source 1 Livestock Supply.

Cattle trucks on their way to the Klamath Falls rally. Photo courtesy of Nikki Duarte.

“This rally was just about the economics of agriculture in the Klamath Basin,” he said. The caravan of agricultural and industry vehicles and crowds of signwaving supporters made their way through the downtown area and by the government buildings.

Marino reported the rally stopped up traffic in the area, but that the police did not intervene despite the lack of a permit for the impromptu event.

“They realized the situation and the plight of the rancher. This isn’t the first time there’s been a water rally in Klamath and this is likely not the last.”

The referenced plight is the aforementioned shut-off of the water to, among others, agricultural interests. In March of this year, Oregon courts ruled that tribes hold “time immemorial” water rights in Klamath County, meaning they get priority over ag businesses. That ruling, coupled with the ongoing drought conditions, led to the rally-inspiring water shut-offs for irrigation of crops and pastures.

Duarte explained that there was a lot of confusion about the water rights issue. He pointed out that many people in the area seem to think that the water shut-off only affects “junior” water rights.

“It’s not just junior water rights being cut off, it’s everyone.”

He explained that his ranch has been around with water rights since 1864, but that any water right is junior to the “time-immemorial” rights of the tribe.

“Everyone is getting cut off except the tribe.”

Duarte did point out, as did much of the information about the rally, that it was not an us-versus-them situation over the water rights, just that people need to be aware of how essential the water is to agriculture, to the economy of Klamath County, and ultimately everyone in the area.

“None of us are disputing the fact the tribe has a water right. The dispute is the quantification of the water. What they’ve granted the tribe in the water is all the water that the river will hold in a normal year. That’s above the high-water mark. That’s what we’re up against, is just the quantification of the water.”

Temporary relief

The water ruling issue is a long-standing and long-running one that is not done yet. Even as the rally was underway to bring awareness of agriculture’s importance to Klamath County’s economy, the Oregon Water Resources Commission was at work trying to protect the interests of human and animal water needs.

The commission held an emergency meeting at the behest of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) and adopted a temporary rule awarding preference of water rights to uses for livestock watering and human consumption in Klamath County. According to OCA, this temporary rule addresses the “immediate threat to the health and welfare of the people of Oregon that would otherwise occur if regulation of senior water rights in Klamath County curtailed or prohibited use of surface water for human consumption and livestock watering.”

“The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association is pleased with the commission’s decision,” said Kay Teisl, OCA executive director. “We greatly appreciate their immediate response to this dire issue. Now ranchers have a fighting chance of keeping their cattle watered through the summer.”

By all accounts, this does not impact the shut-off where irrigation of pastures and crops are concerned, which still means the possibility of cattle left without feed in late summer or winter exists. Continuing pasture problems due to drought may still force ranchers to sell off their herds, water for the cattle or not. As many of the rally supporters’ signs read: no water means no grass, and no grass means no cattle.

Court proceedings are still underway. Some people contacted by WLJ for this story were initially unable to respond because they were in court to get a stay against total shut-off of the water for irrigation and to appeal the ruling which granted the water rights to the tribe all but entirely. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor