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Water issues group making some headway

Klamath River stakeholders from the headwaters in Oregon to where it flows into the Pacific Ocean in Northern California gathered this week in Medford seeking common ground on solutions to water usage, among other topics.

In what he describes as the most substantive meeting yet, Alan Mikkelsen said that some 65 people representing the Northern California tribes, wildlife and marine interests, Bureau of Reclamation, environmental groups and On Project and Off Project irrigators met for a full day of talks.

“Pretty much everyone in the basin,” said Mikkelsen, who is a senior adviser to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on water and western resources. He has been charged with restarting talks among the various interests in the Basin — after a legislative solution failed to pass in Congress — to see if an agreement can be reached in sharing the water to both protect endangered fish and keep irrigators solvent.

Missing at the table was the Klamath Tribes, which holds the primary water rights in the upper basin flowing into Upper Klamath Lake. However, observers from the Tribes were in the meeting room to take notes, but they did not participate. Mikkelsen said he talked with Tribal Chairman Don Gentry later in the day about tribal participation.

Gentry told the H&N Thursday that tribal staff attended the meeting and took notes. The staff will report to the tribal council on Monday and the council could decide the next steps. Gentry declined to elaborate until after the council meets.

Mikkelsen and the Tribes have been at odds lately over the water talks. In August talks came to an abrupt halt, with both sides saying their issues are not being heard. For the Klamath Tribes it centers on adequate water levels to protect of endangered short-nosed and Lost River sucker species; fish important to the tribal culture. The fear is if nothing is done, the species may go extinct.

For Mikkelsen, he said he was not well received while meeting with the Tribes and trying to jump-start water negotiations.

In September, the Interior Department abruptly canceled the last year of a five-year fish study, worth about $500,000. It upset the Tribes, which believes the study is vital to protect the fish. Politically, it appeared Interior was sending a message to the Tribes to force them to the table.

Then in November, the Klamath Tribes withdrew a lawsuit regarding lake levels in Upper Klamath Lake against the Bureau of Reclamation. That came in light of Reclamation’s announcement that a new biological opinion underway is expected to be completed by April 2019, four months sooner than previously stated. A biological opinion guides Reclamation on water releases down river.

Mikkelsen has noted that lawsuits from any party is detrimental to the talks and was not interested in negotiating if there is pending legal action that may hamper talks.

Meanwhile, the outcome of Wednesday’s Medford meeting is that a few committees have been assigned to look at water quality issues, fisheries management, water supply, the past legislation regarding deliveries, among other things. No specifics were provided.

“We’re going to try to pick some of the easiest issues to resolve first, to be blunt; then pick the next easiest issue. At some point, the momentum might find a global solution,” he said. “Right now we’re trying to pick out an idea that everyone can agree on that can easily be fixed. I think everyone went away pleased with what was accomplished.”

The committees plan to report back at the January meeting in Medford. There’s a tentative meeting in February in Redding, Calif.

The meetings are by invitation only and the press is not permitted to attend.

“What we are trying to do here is build some relationships in the Basin, no offense to the press. If we invited the public and the press to these talks they would have to be held in an auditorium,” Mikkelsen said, “and would turn into a sporting event. I just don’t think negotiating with the press present is necessarily the best strategy.”



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              Page Updated: Saturday December 15, 2018 01:19 AM  Pacific

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