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Know the West

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.


On a June morning, Scott White and a colleague from his agency, the state Water Resources Department, park their pickup near a green pasture and barn outside Bly, Ore. A rancher, his wife and son meet the government men at the gate, their faces tight with barely suppressed anger. Low snowpack and stream flows prompted Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to declare a drought emergency in the Klamath Basin in April, and the watermasters are here to shut off the irrigation water the family needs to sustain their fields through temperatures pushing 100 degrees.

This is just one of the hundreds of personal visits that watermasters are paying to ranchers and hay farmers who draw from the headwaters of the Klamath River, which runs 250 miles from southern Oregon's high desert to the fog-shrouded redwoods of the California Coast. The crews, working in pairs, offer a sympathetic ear to frustrated ranchers, but carry radios and file itineraries with state police for their own safety as they step through wire fences and straddle ditches to measure stream flows, close headgates and turn off pumps. Anywhere else in Oregon, officials would simply phone people to tell them to turn off their own irrigation systems, says White, a 35-year-old who wears waterproof hiking boots and covers his bald head with a baseball cap on parched summer days. "But this is a first in this basin."

After a 38-year process, this March the state of Oregon recognized the 3,700-member Klamath Tribes -- the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin people -- as the most senior water-rights holders in the Upper Klamath Basin. In June, fearing the drought would decimate their traditional fishery of endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers, the tribes exercised their rights to keep water in the lake and upper tributaries that feed into the Klamath River. The federal government joined the tribes, using its senior rights to ensure the flow of water to 1,400 other farms on the Klamath Project on the California-Oregon border. Hundreds of Upper Basin ranchers and other junior water users, including federal wildlife refuges, were cut off; even Crater Lake National Park has had to truck in drinking water for campers.

"People are hurt, they are angry, and I think there's grieving," says Roger Nicholson, who raises cattle in the Wood River Valley near Fort Klamath. He received a card ordering him to shut off in July. "To lose the productive ability of our land is almost like the loss of a family member. It's deep down."

The tribes agonized over the decision, says Tribal Council Member Jeff Mitchell, knowing it would fan the flames of one of the West's most intractable resource conflicts. People here have fought for generations over water and the fish, farms and hydroelectric dams it supplies, and the consequences have been widespread, including massive fish die-offs, toxic algae blooms in reservoirs and salmon declines that have closed 700 miles of coastline to fishing, from the Columbia River to Monterey, Calif.

Some have worried that this summer's drought might also kill the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which was supposed to resolve those water-distribution conflicts while restoring habitat throughout the 15,000-square-mile Basin. Partly because many Upper Basin irrigators and others never signed on, the settlement has languished in Congress for over three years. But the latest crisis may actually provide the push needed to finally move the complex and fragile détente. The shut-offs have brought Nicholson and other holdouts to the table to join tribes and government officials for an urgent round of talks aimed at finding a swift resolution. "This is our one chance to fix the Klamath system," says Mitchell. "And it's fixable."

Struggles over water in the Klamath famously boiled over in 2001, when the federal government halted water deliveries to Klamath Project farmers to protect endangered suckers and salmon. U.S. marshals were called in to protect irrigation headgates from angry demonstrators, who formed a "bucket brigade" to manually divert water to irrigation canals in an act of civil disobedience. The Bush administration resumed water deliveries the following year, but that left river flows so low during the fall chinook salmon run that thousands of fish died, devastating downstream fisheries.

Three years ago, a coalition of dozens of onetime adversaries -- including farmers, fishermen, tribes and environmentalists -- signed a widely lauded truce. Under the agreement, the Klamath Tribes would not use their water rights to cut off the farmers who are part of the Klamath Project, a 1905 federal irrigation project that transformed an arid stretch of the California-Oregon border into productive farmland. The farmers agreed to accept less water during dry periods in exchange for greater certainty of deliveries from year to year.

The tribes, meanwhile, would benefit from restoration projects and receive 92,000 acres of forest, a small portion of the 1.8 million acres they lost when the U.S. government dissolved their reservation in 1954. In a companion deal, the electric utility PacifiCorp agreed to remove four hydroelectric dams on the river, allowing salmon to return to parts of the Klamath and its tributaries that have been blocked for nearly a century.

The settlement's architects have warned that the longer it sits, the more likely it is to unravel. The legislation has stalled in part because key groups still oppose it. Several environmental organizations and the Hoopa Valley Tribe say the settlement gives too much water to irrigators and doesn't reserve enough for fish. Meanwhile, Tea Party-backed ranchers who are not part of the federal irrigation project oppose dam removal and continuing Endangered Species Act protections for fish. At a committee hearing in June, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the deal had to bring those critics into the tent and cut the bill's $800 million price tag in order to win congressional support.

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.