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As history is made, there's reason for hope in the Basin

Tim Fought

Published February 27, 2005

Nearly four years ago, when Main Street in Klamath Falls was the scene of the Bucket Brigade protest, the Herald and News did a little showing off.

The protest was an historic, symbolic piece of civil disobedience against a federal government decision not to provide irrigation water. Thousands of people lined Main Street to pass buckets, one by one, from the river to the A canal.

The protest was scheduled right at press time. So, as the first bucket was dipped into the water at Veterans Park, photographer Gary Thain snapped a picture.

Then he hustled back to the office and downloaded his digital image. Editors placed the photo on the front page. The press rolled. Newspaper employees grabbed the first copies and hurried out to Main Street to distribute them to the protestors who were still passing buckets.

That stunt came to mind Friday at another historic turning point.

Shortly before press time, Steve Harper and Alan Foreman arrived at the Herald and News to huddle around a telephone speaker carrying the voice of Roger Nicholson. The three announced a bargain that could be the first step toward resolving the water struggle that reached a crisis in 2001.

City Editor Todd Kepple had already spoken with Harper. As the meeting progressed, he stepped out to edit and add to his story. Other editors put the story on the front page. The press rolled. By the time Harper, Foreman and Nicholson had finished, we were able to present the first copies, still warm from the press, limp and inky.

"Ranchers, tribes make water deal" the headline read. It was a plain headline, but historic.

Harper, former Kingsley commander, Chamber of Commerce leader and state senator, had been the mediator between two groups led by Foreman, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, and Nicholson, a prominent rancher above Upper Klamath Lake.

They agreed to settle water claims and proposed a process for dealing with water storage and habitat restoration for suckers. The law is endlessly arcane, but the picture can be oversimplified:

Under western water law, claims to water establish a property right, and the first claims are the strongest. State governments and the courts settle exactly how much property-water comes with a claim.

In the Klamath Basin, more than 100 years after the start of irrigation and heavy-duty water engineering, this settling of claims, called "adjudication," has yet to be accomplished. This is at the heart of the Basin's water struggle.

The deal Friday confirms one piece of conventional wisdom about the Klamath Basin water struggle, and explodes another.

What's affirmed is that if there is to be peace in the Klamath Basin, it will have to be made here, and those of us who live here will have to make it. Harper said, only half in jest, that he undertook the role of mediator on the condition that the talks involve only people from Klamath County and exclude federal bureaucrats.

The U.S., Oregon and California governments have necessary roles to play - but only if the likes of Nicholson, Foreman and Harper can reach agreements that accommodate farmers, Indians, fish and waterfowl.

What's exploded is the notion of an overarching agreement that settles multiple issues at once. Probably, the failure of the not-so-secret talks at the Shilo Inn a year ago can be laid to the weight of too many issues bearing down on one bargaining table, starting with the Tribes' aspirations for a reservation.

The participants estimate it took a couple of dozen bargaining sessions and nine months to reach Friday's agreement. It has multiple aspects, including a process to deal with habitat restoration and water storage. But all the participants said that a reservation wasn't part of the bargaining.

My guess is the Tribes have a twofold rationale for striking a bargain that doesn't deal with a reservation.

The first is that habitat restoration and water quality are more important than the quantity of water they can secure. The second is that they can't win a congressional vote to restore any land without substantial support among whites in Klamath County, and making peace over water is a way to start winning that support.

In any case, it ought to be clear that the progress that's made in the Klamath Basin will be slow, incremental, painstaking and difficult.

So, some cautionary notes are in order.

For one, the agreement announced Friday may be a template, or it may not be. Other claims upstream of the lake remain to be addressed, as do those downstream, including those associated with the Klamath Reclamation Project.

For another, there are other related issues to be dealt with. The long-term debate over a reservation is an example. So, too, are the PacifiCorps electricity contracts involving both upstream and project irrigators. Farmers will have little use for water if they can't afford to pump it onto their fields.

Finally, we've got to get through this year. Nature has dumped all the water in Southern California, and our mountains are nearly bare. Unless there's freakish snow or rain, and soon, moisture will be historically short.

Nobody should get giddy about this deal. There's much work and many years ahead. But everybody ought to raise their hopes. For the first time since 2001, that's a reasonable thing to do.

Fought is editor of the Herald and News. tfought@heraldandnews.com






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