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Upper Klamath Basin Agreement signed, despite tribal protest

By Erika Bentsen
April 24, 2014
Western Ag Reporter
Billings, MT

            A ceremonial signing of the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement was performed on Friday, April 18 in Collier Memorial State Park near Chiloquin, Oregon.  Oregon Governor Kitzhaber, Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Democratic Senators Wyden and Merkley, and several other government officials appeared with settlement negotiators to publicly sign the agreement which had been drafted with little public input.  About a dozen Klamath tribal members attended the event to protest the signing, but other tribes, like the Hoopa tribe in California and the newly formed Modoc Nation, are waiting in the wings to openly denounce all Klamath water agreements.

            In spite of the tribal protest chants, Governor Kitzhaber declared the agreement "knits together California, Oregon, lower basin tribes upper basin tribes, and irrigators" and is "the foundation for rebuilding prosperity throughout the basin." Klamath tribal representatives boasted the agreement is "the key to advancing the legislation necessary to implement the KBRA (Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement) and KHSA (Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement), both of which were overwhelmingly approved by the tribal membership."  Ranching spokespersons claimed the agreement will bring "social and economic healing of the agriculture and tribal community" and has been crafted to "create economic security and resource stability for the Klamath tribes and the Upper Basin community."

            Downplayed as being an insignificant group of naysayers, the Klamath protesters nonetheless complained loudly of the "sale" of their water, and of the unfairness of the voting procedure where only a third of the tribal members cast ballots.  The Hoopas are decrying the "degradation of tribal water rights" and the Klamath tribes getting all of the Klamath River's water, believing that the three  agreements "virtually assures that none of the water will reach the Klamath River in California."  The Northern California-Southern Oregon based Modoc Nation, which started in 2010 to separate themselves from the generic label of "Klamath tribes" is claiming that the Klamath negotiations are trading off Modoc water rights.  One Modoc member claims "The Klamath tribe gets everything and is protecting all the Klamath's homeland and water rights but sells off all the Modoc's. . . . this is an outright attack on our tribe."

            The End . . . or Just the Beginning?

            Like the Project farmers below Klamath lake, Upper Basin ranchers and irrigators were assured that signing an agreement with the Klamath tribes would end all of the "water wars" in the basin.  Even before the ink has dried on the document, infighting has broken out within the Klamath tribes, and other tribes are lining up to protest the unfairness of providing water to the Klamath tribe of Oregon with no regard for other tribal interests downriver in California. 

            According to Hoopa-nsn.gov, the Hoopa is one of five California tribes on the 263 mile long Klamath river.  All along this tribe has been vocal against what they are calling "bad water sharing agreements."  The Hoopa claims the agreements "includes language that the US government is waiving all the Klamath Basin Tribes' water rights related to the Klamath Project including the Hoopa Tribes'.  This termination of trust responsibility by the US government was done over Hoopa's objection.  It sets an example for all of Indian Country that the government can chose not to enforce rights."  (note:  "chose" is the direct quote, assumed typo for "choose.")

            This series of agreements demonstrate that both upper and lower basin irrigators are willing to cave on their own rights to appease one tribe or group of tribes in order to continue to irrigate.  Many irrigators are starting to wonder if they will also be expected to kowtow to each subsequent tribe that comes along.  Other questions arising are how will the Department of Interior satisfy the growing demands of all of its wards, or how it will chose between the tribes it protects and the tribes it rejects?

            At the signing ceremony, Senator Wyden promised to introduce legislation in the Senate in May to start the political ball rolling.  Partly by shifting the source of funding from one group to another, and counting projects that are already completed, the original $1 billion estimated to implement the mammoth KBRA has been pared down to a bargain of only $545 million.  The fate of these bills, however, remains uncertain in the House.

            This latest agreement, which is being heralded by its creators as a great peace accord, may turn out to be just a monumental step backward in the adjudication process.  Many irrigators suspect that this agreement is quickly trending toward failure, but there are fears that it will forever weaken individual water rights and fundamentally redefine private property rights along Oregon waterways across the state, with other states to follow suit.





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