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Klamath Basin Water . . . Situation Update

by Erika Bentsen
March 27, 2014
Western Ag Reporter
Billings, MT

            Ranchers have until April 14 to decide whether or not to sign on to an agreement with tribes, environmentalists, and state and federal governments in order to receive any irrigation water this season.  As it stands, the tribes currently hold control of nearly all of the surface water typically used for irrigation in the Klamath Basin.  Instead of going to traditional beneficial use before reentering the rivers, this water is to remain in the river system and eventually flushed out to sea some 300 miles away.  The Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD), using a computer model based solely on proximity, recently determined that most groundwater wells within a mile of the river system will also cause interference with the surface water, thus denying the new senior water rights' holders their due.

            As the deadline approaches, peer pressure from within the community is ramping up in order to get participants to sign on.  Rumors are flying around the valley as to who has signed on and who hasn't.  Many different ranchers are reporting they are being told "Everyone else has signed this.  You are the only one who hasn't."  Friendships are being tested.  Core beliefs are being defined, or redefined.

            The agreement is meant to be an attempt to get the tribes to reduce their demand from all of the water to only most of the water with the hopes that agriculture, the county's main economy, might somehow get just enough irrigation water to survive.  The negotiations raged for six months.  The ensuing results, for many ranchers, are terribly hard to swallow.

            It is an all-or-nothing agreement.  Roughly 80% of the landowners with riparian lands along rivers and streams must sign on to this agreement to save themselves, and others irrigators farther back in the valley.  But by signing, some have much more to lose than others.

            One of the problems is the riparian landowners must give up control of 30 to 130 feet of their property on either side of the rivers and streams.  Fenced separately from the rest of their land, these riparian corridors will fall under the watchful eye of the "Landowner Entity" who will manage this private ground to satisfy the tribes' and governmental determination of what is deemed environmentally friendly for the health of the rivers.  While grazing and farming won't be ruled out completely in these areas, stricter standards for grass height will be enforced.  Farming will be restricted to approved plant-types, with stubble height having to meet specific standards.  Some with houses near the river wonder if their lawns will also fall under scrutiny.

            In order to get a fraction of their normal irrigation, landowners must remain silent when the tribes make demands of the government for the passage of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), and the removal of 4 energy producing dams on the Klamath River.  They are to voice no opposition to the tribes' demand of the taxpayers buying 90,000 acres of forestland to replace the reservation they sold in the 1950s.  They are to continually conform to meet increasing restrictions on their private ground.  More rules.  More laws.  More control.

            Once the tribes begin dictating what ranchers can and cannot say as they hold the irrigation water hostage, many ranchers fear more demands will be made of their voices in the future.  It is being whispered that the Project farmers downstream, who made a deal with the tribes earlier, were forced by the tribes to make their own call on the upstream ranchers' water last season.

            With many ranchers viewing this agreement as a loss of their first amendment rights and their personal property rights in exchange for getting some water from the tribes, it is too demanding of their Constitutional freedoms.  At what point will they be mere subjects of the tribes?

            It's just a business deal, ranchers are told.  Don't make it more than it is.





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