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Klamath Basin Water . . . Time for soul searching
By Erika Bentsen
March 27, 2014
Western Ag Reporter
Billings, MT

            While the advertised goal behind the proposed Upper Klamath Basin Settlement Agreement was to unify a strongly divided community with diverse needs for the same water, it seems that the Agreement is only causing a wider rift among the groups it was supposed to bring together.  A large part of the problem was the lack of communication during the settlement negotiation process.  Covertly constructed behind tightly closed doors and overzealous confidentiality clauses, many believe the Agreement was sprung too suddenly and far too harshly on the individuals whose irrigation rights, personal property rights and livelihoods are under direct assault.

            A series of informative meetings were held March 10, 12, and 13th around the upper Basin as settlement negotiators worked to sell their Agreement to the landowners in the valley.  These meetings, however, are causing more suspicion than understanding because what is said in the meetings does not always match what is in the document.

            Further fueling the skepticism is the clause requiring the negotiators to use their Best Effort to get landowners to sign on.  Another clause allows for differing interests to voice conflicting statements regarding the settlement's language as long as they are "good-faith interpretations" of the document's intent.  This wording might be given a pass, except that buried in the back is yet another clause that only what is written in the Agreement is binding, not what has been verbally promised or what individuals are led to believe.  When asked about these clauses, the negotiators insisted they were explaining everything as defined in the document.

            What else could they say?  They aren't allowed to say otherwise.

            After learning just how much irrigation water landowners will still lose, not to mention the new access they must provide on their riparian area property if they sign on to the agreement, many ranchers now feel betrayed by their leadership.  The ranching community believed when the settlement talks started they finally had someone at the table to represent them, good people who would fight for their interests.  But even though they did start that way, to many it appears that somewhere down the road these negotiators switched from representing the ranchers to representing the document. 


Stockholm Syndrome?

            To be fair to the negotiators defending the ranching interests, they were up against a rock and a hard place.  With the tribes aligned with both the state and federal governments, not to mention environmental groups and conservation organizations---each with their own panel of lawyers--- it did not leave them with much bargaining power.  For six months they were shut in a room 3 to 5 days each week and faced with the futility of making demands of others who, essentially, had a gun to their heads.  They pretty much had to take what little was handed to them. 

            Reason dictates they had almost no choice in the direction of the settlement talks.  No one believes they gave any less than 100 percent for the ranchers during the battle of wording the agreement, but the rub comes when, instead of walking away from a bad deal, they are defending the document to their peers as the smart thing to do.  Because of the continuing gag orders about negotiation, there is no way for them to satisfactorily explain how they went from where they were to where they are now.

            In the previous months leading up to the proposed agreement's presentation to the public, negotiators remained tight-lipped regarding what was being discussed in the talks.  The closest anyone came to opening up was when one of the "leaders" said (off the record) he would sell his soul for a drop of water.  That is his own business, but he was never authorized to sell anyone else's.

            Ranchers are now being advised to sit down, shut up, and be glad to take the crumbs handed to them.  They are told they have already lost their water and they are lucky to even be getting crumbs.  True, they would win back part of their water in the Supreme Court, but it they will be getting no water-- and therefore no income-- for the fifteen to twenty years it will take to get their case heard. 

            According to the negotiators pushing the agreement, ranchers have nothing left to bargain.  Their only choice is to give up.  Ranchers need to sign on and take the bait being dangled before them.  If not, the tribes and government will crush everyone and no one will get anything.

            Some complained this deal sounds like a schoolyard bully:  give me your lunch money or I will hurt you.  Some can't see the merit in paying the tribes $45 million to essentially take over all waterfront property.  If any other conservation group wanted to manage a riparian area on privately owned ground, they would have to pay the landowners for an easement fair and square.

            So what are the ranchers' real options?  If they have already lost, is it smart to pay their oppressors $45 million to let them hand on a little longer to a lesser-valued land?  By not agreeing to this, ranchers will get no irrigation water from above or below ground, but could keep their soul intact and will have saved taxpayers millions. 

            Many are asking if ranchers truly have lost already, then why must they suffer insult and injury by signing away their property rights and freedom of speech in order to slowly draw out what may be their inevitable demise?  The negotiators say it's good business sense.  Ranchers aren't supposed to look at it like losing private property or freedom of speech.  It's just business. 

            Not everyone sees it that way.




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