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If they restore habitat, irrigators should get their water assured

Published October 5, 2004

Mike Connelly Columnist

I know for a fact that the vast majority of farmers and ranchers in the Basin are ready and willing to do what it takes to make it so there's plenty of fish here.

The trouble is, they can't. In fact, in many cases, they'd be fools to.

I remember, about seven years ago now, I was very much interested in restoring some sucker habitat on the creek that ran through the family ranch. We thought it would be good to put things back together again, and we would have liked to have made it so some fish could get back up in that creek.

So I asked around. We thought maybe we'd get cut some slack if we did the right thing. We knew about cases where landowners had ended up with some decent protection from regulatory actions in exchange for commitments to habitat restoration.

What we learned was that things don't work that way here in the Klamath Basin. What we learned was that, in the best-case scenario, restoring habitat on our place would make no difference whatsoever as far as giving us some certainty from year to year. And most likely, it would only make things harder for us.

So you can guess what we did. We did nothing.

But there were many who did do things, despite the lack of solid assurances. The optimists did a whole lot of things that the biologists and the regulators said they ought to do. And the optimists did these things because they had been told that if they did them, they wouldn't get their water shut off. Some optimists even stuck their necks out so far as to try to convince their fellow farmers that they ought to be optimists, too.

But there were many who didn't buy it, who couldn't take that kind of risk based on just a verbal assurance from regulators who may or may not even be here in a year. The skeptics asked what would keep the regulators from just shutting us off anyway, after we put all the time and effort into doing what was asked of us. They wanted to see some tangible, legally defensible connection between habitat restoration and predictable water deliveries.

They were told that wasn't possible. They asked why not. They were told, well, that's just the way things are. You mean, they asked, that you're requiring us to comply, but you're not going to tell us what compliance is?

Uh, yes, they were told, that's pretty much how it is.

The skeptics, as it turned out, were right. In 2001, after a decade of cooperation on habitat restoration projects, the water was shut off. The optimists who had stuck their necks out got them whacked off, and had a pretty hard time from there on out defending themselves against the charge that they didn't know what the heck they were talking about. The year 2001, sadly, ended up making skeptics of us all.

Or most of us anyway. Some of us never learn I guess. Three years later we're out in the territory that the biologists and the regulators say needs the most help. We're out there talking to other landowners, our neighbors, about doing this or that to help make things better. And we hear the same things over, and over, and over again:

"Look what we've done already, and what did that get us?"

"We want to, but how can we when we don't even know if we'll be here next year?" "We want to, but why should we when we know we'll just get screwed for it?"

"We used to want to, but then we just said to hell with it."

And you know what? I don't blame them a bit.

Good intentions may turn out wrong

Just recently we had a guy who had all kinds of things he wanted to do, and was all fired up to make some good changes in a very important area. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of mentioning the property in a public forum, and the landowner came unglued. Right now he doesn't even want to talk to us, much less do a project.

Why? Because he's in a legal fight over water rights, and a regulatory fight over endangered species, and he's worried that publicly acknowledging there's a problem will be used against him, either by the regulators or the parties laying claim to his water.

And I suppose he ought to be worried, which is about the stupidest thing I can think of.

I mean, how much more ridiculous can this situation get? The regulators and the water rights claimants have a bunch of things they say need to happen for the fish, and they keep the legal or regulatory blade to the irrigators' necks because they think that's the only way the irrigators will do anything. At the very same time, we have irrigators that are willing and able to do the right thing, if only the regulators and the water rights claimants would take the blade off their necks. But they won't take the blade away because then the irrigators won't do anything, and the irrigators won't do anything because they won't take the blade away, and so on and so on, until we see the Four Horsemen coming over the hill.

Dang it, it's time we all took a little leap of faith here. And it's time once and for all to design a formal, legal connection between habitat restoration and regulatory compliance (including water rights settlement). The regulators and water rights claimants need to get their story straight, and their act together. They need to say, out loud and in writing, what they have to have, and they need to offer up water in return - guaranteed water, every single year, for a good long time.

If they can summon up the courage to lay it on the line like this, I'm betting that, before we know it, we'll be pitch-forking fish out of the river like the old days. Now wouldn't that be something?

Mike Connelly, a former rancher, is a writer and director for a non-profit foundation in Klamath Falls.


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