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Klamath Basin not ready for water marketing solution

By TAM MOORE Oregon Staff Writer

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — Economic theory may point to buying and selling water as a solution in water-scarce areas such as the Klamath Basin, but local leaders last week rejected a market-based solution as not ready for prime time.

The discussion came in a conflict resolution conference put on by the Property and Environment Research Center and Jeld Wen Corp., owner of the Running Y Ranch with 6,800 acres of irrigated pasture and cropland dependent on an uncertain water supply.

“I need ... a certain, reliable supply of water there” to farm, said Mark Campbell, manager of the ranch.

Jim Huffman, dean of the Lewis and Clark College Law School, made the case for the ability to buy and sell water as a property right. He also said in the Klamath, where federal involvement, pre-historic tribal water claims, demand for fish habitat, irrigation for farms and water for hydro power generation compete for the same natural runoff that “I don’t think private property is a solution, it is a part of the solution.”

Economist Terry Anderson, who is on the property rights center staff, said when the day-long forum was over that the real lesson is that the Klamath Basin needs “incremental” solutions, not massive fixes, “because if we screw it up, it is only a little change” that can be halted.

In both Oregon and California, water rights by law relate to the land receiving the irrigation or other benefit of water. The system is overlain with irrigation projects that store water in one location, then move it to others, often during summer months when natural flows are low.

“Separating water rights from land and selling it is somewhat like clearcutting a forest and not replanting,” said Doug Whitsett, president of the rancher-dominated advocacy group Water for Life.

The real problem in 2004, said Leslie Bach, a hydrologist with The Nature Conservancy, is that pre-1909 water rights in Oregon’s part of the basin aren’t settled. The adjudication begun in 1975 remains years from resolution.

Water markets might work, Bach said, if parties settled the Oregon adjudication.

Said Anderson after listening to the Klamath stakeholders, he’s convinced that for any solution to work it will be by “the knowledge of people who have their feet on the ground,” not those participating in federal task forces in Washington, D.C.

“If I were here I would be more fearful of political solutions,” Anderson said. “Those will be driven by people far from here.”

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