GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Tens of thousands of acres in Oregon's drought-stricken Klamath Basin will have to go without irrigation water this summer after the Klamath Tribes and the federal government exercised for the first time newly confirmed powers that put the tribes in the driver's seat over the use of water.
Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Mike Connor said Monday they were making what is known as a "call" on their water rights for rivers flowing into Upper Klamath Lake in Southern Oregon.
The tribes are maintaining river flows for fish, while the bureau is using its water the Klamath Reclamation Project, a federal irrigation project covering 225,000 acres along the Oregon-California border south of Klamath Falls.
The new powers were made possible by a March ruling of an administrative law judge confirming the tribes have the oldest water rights in the upper basin - and therefore have first say over controlling it.
The upper basin covers 138,000 acres around the communities of Fort Klamath, Chiloquin and Sprague River in the area of the tribes' former reservation. Though the federal government took away the reservation in the 1950s, courts have determined the tribes retained their hunting, fishing and water rights, dating to time immemorial.
The bureau's rights date to 1905, when the Klamath Reclamation Project started drawing water from the lake.
The region is struggling with drought after a dry winter left little snow in the mountains, which feeds the basin's rivers and the lake.
The tribes are using their water to maintain flows in the Wood, Williamson, Sprague and Sycan rivers for fish. They include endangered suckers held sacred by the tribes, redband tout, and ultimately salmon, if dams on the Klamath River are removed.
Even with the water resulting from the call, the bureau will have only two-thirds of the water it needs from the Klamath Project, leading to some cutbacks there.
The actions reverse the roles from 2001, when the bureau had to shut off irrigation to most of the project to protect fish, but cattle ranchers in the upper basin still had water to irrigate their pastures.