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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 Department.

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 rights."

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 first.

"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 said.

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, Nicholson explained.

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, Nicholson said.

Until the adjudication process is completed, nothing changes.

"It has to wait until it's done. We haven't been impacted yet and will not be impacted this year," Nicholson said.

"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 afford.

"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 you."

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," Nicholson said.

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 the Basin."


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