Severe drought forces a moment of truth for the Klamath

Irrigation shutoffs in the river's upper basin may finally help move a historic water deal on the Oregon-California border.

  • Rancher Ken Willard irrigates his pasture in June, one of the last opportunities he had to water. Willard and other ranchers on tributaries above Upper Klamath Lake are being shut off this summer as the Klamath Tribes exercise their newly confirmed water rights.

    Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian
  • Tribal council member and lead water-rights negotiator Jeff Mitchell says the Klamath Tribes debated whether to make a water call, knowing it would be unpopular.

    Joe Kline
  • Becky Hyde, a representative of the Upper Klamath Water Users Association and rancher whose own water was shut off this summer.

    Joe Kline

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The power dynamic in the Basin changed significantly when the state officially recognized the Klamath Tribes' "time immemorial" water rights. Under the West's "first in time, first in right" water doctrine, senior water-rights holders can make a "call" when supply falls short, forcing their juniors to stop using water until their needs are satisfied. "It's a blunt tool, but this was the only path available to us," says Mitchell.

The recent call has hit the Upper Basin's off-project ranchers hardest; many of them refused to sign the Klamath deal because they felt it put tribes and fish ahead of their pastures. Now they're wondering how long they can stay in business without water. Many have had to decide whether to cut the size of their herds or try to move their cattle elsewhere. As their losses mount, they've begun to demand relief.

In July, Upper Basin ranchers drove a convoy of semi trucks, hay trailers and tractors to a rally in downtown Klamath Falls. They hoisted American flags and signs reading, "No water, no job," and "Empty ditch = Empty tummy." Over the blare of truck horns, hundreds called for quick action to return water to their fields. On display at the county building where they gathered is a huge metal bucket that was put up after drought triggered irrigation cutoffs in 2001: a symbol of how much remains unresolved and a reminder of how easy it is for history to repeat itself. Yet compromise, not conflict, is now in the works.

A task force charged with reaching a new water agreement in the Upper Basin began meeting in July under the supervision of Gov. Kitzhaber's office. It aims to ensure a more reliable water supply for farmers, stabilize power rates for irrigators and trim the settlement's cost.

The ranchers, environmentalists, government agencies, tribes and utilities have just two months to reach consensus because of the drought's severity. "The current crises in the Basin require the immediate attention, leadership and constructive efforts of us all," members of Oregon's congressional delegation wrote in the July 3 letter that convened the talks. "It is clear that now is the time to move for a comprehensive and lasting solution." The lawmakers will use the resulting recommendations to craft new legislation that could push parts of the original settlement forward as early as this fall.

The meetings could break the gridlock because they include some of that deal's most strident critics, including Nicholson, who heads a group of ranchers that has sued, so far unsuccessfully, to block the state from cutting off their irrigation water. He now says that reaching a new settlement is the best hope for the region's water woes. Many provisions of the 2010 deal would have to be re-worked to win his support, he says,  but a new agreement with assurances that their water supply would not be cut off could be enough to convince him and hundreds of other rebellious ranchers to join. "Our people are out of water," he says. "There isn't anyone who could survive 10 years of fighting it out in court."

The Klamath Tribes are willing to sacrifice to bring the off-project ranchers on board, says Mitchell, their lead negotiator on water issues, but they will not back a major rewrite of the agreement if it diminishes benefits to tribes and wildlife. Still, the tribes share the ranchers' sense of urgency. "We want to develop a settlement with the community out there," Mitchell says, "but it takes two parties to be able to do that."

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.

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