Tentative agreement in play on Upper Klamath Basin water war

Dec 9, 2013

—“Agreement in Principle” offers hope for peace between tribes, agriculture

There is a steady glimmer of hope in what has been one of the largest and most extreme examples of a water rights nightmare for ranchers. Six months after the water was shut off, an agreement is in sight.

The Klamath Basin Task Force drafted a preliminary “Agreement in Principle” (AIP) document last Monday which may pave the way to a final decision and even legislation.

“This is really definitely a landmark step,” said Don Gentry, Chairman of the Klamath Tribes which has been a major player in the negotiations. “This is really positive but we have a lot of work to do as we move forward to negotiating a final agreement.”

As suggested by its name, the AIP is not an actionable agreement to specific terms. The document is a tentative agreement with few binding elements, but it is an excellent start. The involved parties hope to have a more formal and binding decision by January.

As it stands currently, the AIP states four “co-equal goals” the involved parties seek to pursue:

• To support the economic development interests of the Klamath Tribes;

• To provide a stable, sustainable basis for the continuation of agriculture in the Upper Klamath Basin;

• To manage and restore riparian corridors along streams that flow into Upper Klamath Lake in order to achieve Proper Functioning Conditions permanently; and

• To resolve controversies regarding certain water right claims and contests in the Oregon Klamath Basin Adjudication.

“The intention is to address water management issues, protect the viability of the agriculture community, which includes protecting the resource concerns the Klamath Tribes have,” Gentry told the Associated Press.

“Negotiating and signing this agreement is a very important and positive step in the efforts of the Klamath Tribes and irrigation community to resolve years of ongoing conflicts and court battles over water management affecting the tribes’ fisheries and other treaty resources, and the economic stability of our community,” stated Don Gentry, Chairman of the Klamath Tribes.

Back in March of this year, Oregon courts ruled that local tribes hold “time immemorial” water rights. This type of water right takes precedence over all other water rights, senior and junior alike. The March ruling was a major turning point in what has represented over 38 years of conflict and lawsuits.

Following the March ruling and the drought this summer, water was effectively shut off for Upper Klamath Basin farmers and ranchers in early June in an effort to increase instream flows and flows into Upper Klamath Lake. Ranchers were notified that they had to stop all diversions of water to irrigate pastures and crops.

Temporary, emergency rules were enacted to prevent total devastation to human populations and livestock, but the damage was still steep.

A report that accompanied the AIP said that “agricultural production in the Upper Klamath Basin was reduced significantly” as a result of the shutoffs. The report with recommendations will be presented to Senators Ron Wyden (D- OR) and Jeff Merkley (D- OR), Congressman Greg Walden (R-OR), and Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber.

“I think if we can get our water back, it will never be the same but it’ll be hopefully something that everyone can live with,” Linda Long, a Modoc Point, OR, rancher involved in the talks leading up to the AIP, told Capital Press. “The tribes and the irrigators can work through it together.”

Among other things, the AIP calls for a 30,000-acre feet reduction in water use by (largely) ranchers and agricultural users in exchange for a more flexible application of the Klamath Tribes’ time immemorial water rights. The “permanent retirement” of the 30,000-acre feet of water is recommended through improved conservation efforts, reductions in use, and other means. Also included is the expectation that agricultural users make efforts to improve water quality and riparian habitats.

“The community needs to stay economically whole for ranchers and tribes,” said rancher Roger Nicholson, who signed the AIP, when speaking with the Associated Press. “We lived in peace for years and want to reestablish that. It only comes about by having everybody fairly and equitably treated.”

He estimated that the water cutoff to area ranchers cost them hundreds of millions in losses to their herds and land values. A rally in early July of this year demonstrated the impact of agriculture to the small Klamath Falls community when over 225 assorted agricultural heavy vehicles and around 1,200 people involved with agricultural business flooded the streets of the town.

The AIP is mostly nonbinding at this point and comments from stakeholders are being sought. Future meetings on the issue are as follows:

Dec. 17 – Klamath Falls, at the Klamath Tribal Health (3949 S. Sixth St.), 6-8 p.m.

Dec. 18: Chiloquin, at the Klamath Tribes Administration Auditorium (501 Chiloquin Blvd.), 6-8 p.m.

Dec, 19: Eugene, at the University of Oregon Many Nations Longhouse, 6-8 p.m.

Dec. 20: Portland, at the Double Tree Inn (Lloyd Center), 6-8 p.m. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor