Water allocation critical to cattle ranchers
Adjudication process under
way in Klamath Basin
By KATHY COATNEY, Capital Press 2/18/2007
It's been said water is the last big gold rush,
and cattlemen in Northern California and Southern
Oregon can attest to that.
The state of Oregon is going through an
adjudication process in the Klamath Basin, and
when completed, it will give a ruling on water
priorities for the basin.
"In the Klamath, the upper portion was adjudicated
many years ago, and at that time, the federal
reserve rights were not identified," said Tom
Paul, deputy director of Oregon Water Resources
With the adjudication, the federal government is
asserting a claim to some of the water in the
basin, Paul said.
Roger Nicholson, a cattle rancher based out of
Flournoy, Calif., also owns a ranch in Ft.
Klamath, Ore. Nicholson, who is involved in the
adjudication process, said, "This is the first
adjudication that they've ever done in the state
of Oregon where they've included federal reserve
Federal reserve rights could include rights for
fish and wildlife refuges, Indian tribes or
anything to do with the federal government.
The fight over water has been going on for years,
Nicholson said, but it's intensifying.
Water for Life was formed by Klamath Basin farmers
and ranchers in 1990 to promote and defend
agricultural water rights.
Helen Moore, executive director of the group, said
if the adjudication comes out against the rancher,
it could cause a huge decline in cattle ranching
in the basin.
Oregon is a prior appropriations state, which
means those with first priority rights are served
"In prior appropriation, the water right holder
with the most senior priority date gets to use the
water the longest, regardless of how that water is
being used," Paul said.
"Depending on how much of the available water goes
to other users will have a huge impact on what is
left available for irrigated agriculture," Moore
The tribes have a time immemorial-dated claim
granted to them by the federal court to be used in
the Klamath adjudication and in others. They will
have an earlier water right than anybody else,
And if the adjudication goes in favor of the
tribes, that would most likely mean there would be
little water left for agriculture in the basin,
Until the adjudication process is completed,
"It has to wait until it's done. We haven't been
impacted yet and will not be impacted this year,"
"They are talking about finishing the adjudication
in the next year or two," Nicholson said, adding
it could be 2009 before it's completed.
Moore said she thinks it's possible whoever loses
will appeal to the Supreme Court.
Paul agreed the appeal opportunity is always
there. "I can't predict whether or not somebody is
going to take it to court," Paul said.
There are negotiations occurring to try to resolve
the challenges between the various claims. "If an
agreement is reached where all parties are happy,
it probably will not be appealed," Paul said.
Contesting the federal claims is costing a lot of
money. "It's just absolutely been terrible, and
they know they can outlast us," Nicholson said,
adding that there's only so much the ranchers can
"Historically, farmers and ranchers from other
regions of the state have donated money to help
support their brethren with these kinds of
issues," Moore said.
"If it's happening in one corner of the state, we
need to anticipate that it will soon happen to
Many Northern California cattle producers ship
cattle to the Klamath Basin, so the outcome of the
adjudication could affect them, as well.
"The bigger part of the upper basin is the pasture
lands that cattle require coming out of
California. It's just tens of thousands of cattle
that go there out of California every year,"
If this land is lost, it's the end of the business
as many cattle producers know it, unless they can
find pasture elsewhere, Nicholson said. And that
may be easier said than done as pasture is in
short supply, he said.
The bottom line is, Nicholson said, "They
(ranchers) will have to change their operations to
drastically reduce their cattle numbers and just
stay in California or do something entirely
different or sell out."
Moore agreed. "It certainly has the potential to
have an adverse effect on irrigated agriculture in