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Guest commentary

Klamath Tribal Council address to Off-Project community; Recent adjudication decision validates rights, puts end to practice of ignoring tribal water claims

 by DONALD C. GENTRY guest writer, Herald and News 5/5/13

     The Klamath Tribes has a track record of seeking potential settlements that could resolve complex issues in a way that protects the Tribes’ interests.

   In recent years, negotiation efforts have involved issues like fish and forest management, land ownership, endangered species, water, hydropower, water quality, and ecosystem restoration, to name a few. All of these relate to natural resources, and so are centered in the Tribes’ treaty rights, which are supremely important to our tribal members.

   Our Tribal Council believes that much of the nontribal public does not understand our decision-making process in regard to settlements. More than one decision process is possible, but the essential elements of the typical process follow a specific sequence.  

   First, authorized Tribal negotiators explore the issues and engage in initial negotiations, reporting back to Tribal Council and General Council as things progress. If a settlement appears to be possible, one that would provide a strong result advancing the Tribes’ interests, then negotiations would continue until a draft settlement is developed.  

   If the Tribal Council believes such a draft settlement to be in the Tribes’ best interest, then it would be advanced to the General Council for a vote. Major issues typically are put to referendum votes, which involve all tribal members of voting age. Decisions by the Klamath Tribes regarding the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement followed this decision path.

   Recent decisions in the Klamath Basin water adjudication have validated the Klamath Tribes’ property rights regarding water in our rivers, streams, lakes, marshes and springs. These rights have been ignored for decades, but those days are now past. We have heard that the self-appointed “leaders” in the Off-Project area are saying that there is no possibility of reaching a settlement with the Tribes. This is not true.

   In the KBRA, the Tribes agreed to a conditional water settlement with the Project irrigators. We were able to reach that agreement because the KBRA acknowledged and advanced our interests as well as those of the other parties.

   No settlement was reached in the KBRA with the Off-Project irrigators, however, because the Off-Project “leaders” refused to acknowledge legitimate tribal rights and interests, which prevented success. Instead, their approach was to advocate completing the adjudication, because they believed the Tribes’ water rights would turn out to be “miniscule.”

   These same people often accuse the Tribes of backing out of a prior water settlement agreement; the truth is that the General Council voted to reject that proposed settlement, in accordance with Tribal statute, because it did not adequately protect Tribal interests. Any other reason given for the failure of that proposed settlement is a flat-out lie.  

   Here is our message to the Off-Project irrigators. We have demonstrated our ability and willingness to enter into and finish good-faith negotiations. We remain committed to the elements of the KBRA, among which is an ongoing process for a potential Off-Project Water Settlement.

   Your pathway to a potential settlement will go through the Upper Klamath Water Users Association, just as we agreed in the KBRA. Any potential water settlement with the Klamath Tribes will require agreement on certain key issues, including:

   Permanent, enforceable agreements regarding management and restoration of riparian corridors on rivers, streams and springs.

   Sufficient levels of participation by landowners to ensure that riparian corridors are restored on a large proportion of our waterways.

   Increased instream flow above that which has been experienced in recent decades.  

   In addition, passage and implementation of the KBRA is essential to any potential OPWAS, because the KBRA was designed to deliver the necessary elements and funding to make an OPWAS possible.

   We emphasize that many of the KBRA restoration actions will also benefit agricultural operations, by facilitating the necessary operational changes and increasing ranch resiliency into the future. A partial list of such KBRA actions includes:

   A voluntary Water Use Retirement Program designed to increase annual inflows into Upper Klamath Lake by 30,000 acre feet.

   Riparian corridor management agreements and associated   riparian pastures.

   Dry-land pasture renovation (including juniper management, soil treatment and seeding) to reduce reliance on riparian pastures.

   Ranch management planning.

   Fence construction and maintenance.

   Installation of off-stream livestock watering facilities.

   Weed and non-native plant control.

   Screening of pumps and diversions to prevent fish entrainment.

   In the KBRA, the Klamath Tribes committed to exploring possible settlement with the Off-Project irrigators. We honor our commitments.  

   We understand and acknowledge the legitimate interests of Off-Project irrigators that must be adequately addressed for an OPWAS to work for them.

   If a potential OPWAS can be developed that adequately addresses the Tribes’ needs, then it will be put before the Klamath Tribes’ membership for a decision. The potential for a productive, balanced, mutually beneficial outcome lies before us. Can we build something together that is better than the alternative?  




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