Winners in harsh battle for Klamath River water claim their rights
Some southern Oregon ranchers will have to reduce or completely shut down irrigation in the parched Upper Klamath Basin this summer as a result of a historic assertion of water rights by other users in the region.
On Monday, several groups, including the Klamath Tribes and irrigators in the federal Klamath Project, made formal calls for water, asking Oregon to enforce rights they won earlier this year.
“Nobody should be surprised by the tribes making a call,” said Jeff Mitchell of the Klamath Tribal Water Team. “Everyone’s seen this day coming for a long, long time.”
“We’re in a drought, and we need to protect tribal treaty resources,” Mitchell said. “This is the only means we have.”
The Oregon tribes in March were granted the oldest water rights in the upper basin, which has been the scene of bitter battles among ranchers, tribes and salmon fishing interests. They compete for water from the Klamath River and its tributaries, which run from southern Oregon into Northern California.
The senior rights of farmers served by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project were also recognized in the same legal adjudication process that granted the tribal rights. Those irrigators issued a separate call Monday, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages wildlife refuges in the basin.
Tom Paul, deputy director of the Oregon Water Resources Department, said a state water master was out in the field Monday examining water use and this week could start ordering junior rights holders to reduce or stop diversions.
“For the first time we have water rights that are enforceable,” he said.
Flows into the Upper Klamath Lake are only 40% of normal this year, reducing irrigation deliveries and flows vital for fish, including the endangered shortnose and Lost River suckers traditionally harvested by the tribes.
It is unclear how many ranchers and other holders of junior water rights will be affected or how much water they will have to give up this season to meet the needs of senior rights holders.
Most of those potentially affected are cattle ranchers who use the water to irrigate pasture. If they have land outside the upper basin, they could move their livestock there.
For others, the effects could be devastating, said Danette Watson of the Upper Klamath Water Users Assn., which represents about half the irrigators in the upper basin.
The water calls are likely to heighten tensions in the region. They may also increase pressure on Congress to act on a basin restoration agreement that calls for the removal of four hydropower dams on the Klamath to restore salmon runs and spells out irrigation deliveries.
The 2010 agreement, which was supposed to put an end to the region’s water feuds, has run into opposition from conservationists and local politicians.
“I’m hoping it’s a kind of a wake-up call,” Watson said, adding that if the agreement were in place, the cutbacks under the water call would not be as severe.
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