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Klamath Water:  Project farms to call upper basin water

By Erika Bentsen
May 29, 2014
Western Ag Reporter
Billings, MT

            Upper Basin ranchers in Klamath County, Oregon are being warned their irrigation water will be shut off Tuesday (May 27).  Last June the Klamath tribes called all surface water irrigation in the upper basin for the remainder of the season with their recent "time-immemorial" surface water claims.  Seeing their way of life on the chopping block, upper basin ranchers scrambled to make a deal with the tribes in order to keep a portion of their irrigation water flowing.  The controversial Agreement quickly underwent a signature ceremony full of political pomp and fanfare in April.  Unfortunately, due to extreme drought conditions in the west, upper basin irrigators are about to watch their fields dry out faster than the ink on the Agreement. 

            This season, instead of the tribes denying the ranchers' water, it is the downstream Project farmers making the calls.  The Project, with a 1908 priority date, will be calling all junior claims to the surface water upstream.  This will halt most irrigation from rivers, streams, and tributaries to the Klamath river system above the Project.  What has ranchers even more concerned is whether or not this will also halt use of groundwater wells within a mile of these waters.

            Using generalized, vague computer models and a lot of speculation, the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD), recently announced a presumption of interference of wells with surface water because of proximity (1 mile or less) and in some cases involving emergency drought wells, "fractionally affecting" water sources over 8 miles away.  Since these wells are accused of interfering with surface water, they will fall under priority date regulation.  Since most groundwater wells in the area were drilled after the 1950s, they will be determined to have rights junior to the Project and, of course, the tribes.

            It is being suggested that the tribes are staying out of the water calls this year in order to keep the tension high between upper and lower basin irrigators.  Whether or not the tribes decide to call for more water over and above the Project claims, the hardship in the upper basin will be compounded.

            With what appears to be more than coincidence, OWRD has threatened to shut off groundwater wells starting with upper Klamath county.  Many have speculated this started out as a ploy to push more ranchers to sign the Agreement.  Because the parameters for timely and effective interference rates was not specified through the water settlements, it is left to OWRD--- not known for its magnanimous inclinations--- to now set its own standards for interference regulation.

            At this time it is impossible to estimate how many wells are going to be restricted this season, or in coming years as new regulations set precedence and spread throughout the state.  The Upper Basin Agreement was touted as simply a "business decision" and therefore it was "good business sense to sign on."   Now, in addition to the continuation of unreliable surface water rights, the upper basin landowners are awaiting an eleventh hour decision from OWRD regarding irrigation wells after the irrigation season has barely begun.  With the Agreement taking hold on the valley ranchers still have no way of knowing the reliability of their water supply from one day to the next.  This has only escalated the uncertainty of which crop to plant or how many head to run.  Many are arguing it is not a good way to run a business; it's a good way to bankrupt one.

Agreements increase disagreements

            It seems the more Agreements that get signed in the Klamath area, the more discord proliferates.  This year it's the Project farmers, not the Klamath tribes, who is the first to deny the upper basin ranchers' irrigation water.  Both upper and lower basin irrigators have signed individual water settlement agreements with the tribes and yet that only seems to open the door to more arguments between each other.  At one time these irrigation groups posed a united front, now the rift between them seems only to widen.

            It's even worse with the tribes, where the tribal council is are facing threats of violence from its own people.  A recent press release from the Klamath tribes expresses concerns for the safety of the Klamath Tribal Council from outraged tribal members who believe the water settlement vote doesn't truly represent the majority of the tribes.  A May 17 Council meeting was canceled and rescheduled for the end of the month because of an active campaign to organize a hostile takeover of the meeting.  "Among the threats is a threat to chain, padlock, and block the doors in order to keep the Tribal Council and those attending the meeting there until action is taken to remove the Chairman, and to overturn the results of a recent referendum approved by the voting membership of the Klamath Tribes."

            The press release went on to report "there have been threats of physical harm, intimidation and harassment (through direct and phone contact, and through social media) directed toward individuals on the Klamath Tribes Tribal Council and toward the Tribal Council as a whole."

            The Klamath tribes' vote only squeaked by approval of the Upper Basin Settlement Agreement.  Of the estimated 4,000 tribal members, the only ballots returned were 564 in agreement and 419 opposed.  A group of tribal members protested the official signing ceremony on April 18, arguing the tribe didn't get enough money for the water ($45 million plus benefits).  Other tribes downstream are complaining that the Klamath tribes are taking over their water and fish.

            The more agreements, the less people agree.  Some believe this government meddling creates far more problems than previously existed.  Unfortunately,  it is easy to fight over water use needs, and keeping individuals united when water is under attack appears to be nearly impossible.





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