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Upper Basin water pact deadline this Friday.
Groups near final agreement; next step is bill for Congress
  By LACEY JARRELL, Herald and News 1/14/14
     Despite the potential of another drought year, upper Basin irrigators and other stakeholders continue moving forward with a pact to secure water rights that should remain workable over the long haul.

   The Klamath Tribes, upper Basin irrigators and conservation groups have been working to create an agreement that would allot water and environmental rights for landowners. Last month, the groups signed an “agreement in principle” (AIP) that outlines their objectives. The deadline for a final contract is Friday.

   Garrett Roseberry, president of the Sprague River Water Resource Group, said the carefully drafted agreement has contingencies for “what if” scenarios like drought years.

   “I don’t think having a year like the one we’re looking at is really going to change what we are doing here, short term or long term. It would be really nice to have a great water year, but at the end of the day, I look at it in the sense that it’s just a smaller hurdle,” he said. The groups have been meeting weekly since July — including during the federal shutdown and through holidays — as a subcommittee of the Klamath Basin Task Force. The objective of the task force appointed by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. is to create an all-inclusive piece of legislation that addresses power delivery to on- and off-project irrigators, resolves water issues above Upper Klamath Lake, and reduces the federal budget for the projects.

   The AIP is the portion of the legislation that will address water allocation, including resolving water and fisheries issues and providing support for the economic development of the Klamath Tribes.

   The task force hopes to have the legislation introduced to Congress this year. The approval could authorize delivery of federal power to irrigators and guarantee federal funding for conditions of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which includes removing four hydro-electric dams on the Klamath River.

   According to Richard Whitman, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s natural resource adviser, the tribes said they will reduce the minimum level of water they require in rivers above the lake to protect fisheries in return for participation by landowners in riparian area restoration.  

   Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribal Council, could not be reached for comment.

   Some landowner participation is expected through reduction of agricultural water use by 30,000 acre feet. The reduction will be in the form of permanent buyouts, or “retirement,” of some upper Basin irrigators’ water rights along the Williamson, Wood and Sprague rivers.

   Before the final agreement can be nailed down, groups must work out details of how the water management system will look and how to get the upper Basin community on board, said Whitman.

   “We’re looking for an overall balance across the board,” Roseberry said. “It’s going to be up to individual landowners to decide whether to participate. A lot of the work being done now is to design something that has a good chance of succeeding in terms of getting broad participation from the community.”

   Becky Hyde, Upper Basin Water Users Association member and rancher, said representatives from the task force have reached out to numerous landowners to learn their concerns and then address them at the negotiation table. She said the response has been positive.

   “In the 15 years I’ve been involved in this, I’ve never seen as much unity across the off-project,” Hyde said. Roseberry said he’s received positive feedback about the AIP as well.

   “I would venture to say that the majority of people in the upper Basin very much look forward to having some type of comprehensive agreement and putting this long-term dispute to rest. I think the timing is correct for all parties involved to come to the table and finally finish this off,” Roseberry said.

   Whitman declined to speak on behalf of the Klamath Tribes, and instead emphasized the importance of a balanced outcome. He noted habitat restoration on private lands and additional water into Upper Klamath Lake as community wide benefits.  

   “If we can heal the community, it’s not just healing the ag community. It’s also healing the relationship with the Klamath Tribes,” he said. “People are going to succeed only if everybody succeeds in this effort.”

   According to Whitman, addressing the complex web of Basin issues in such a short timeframe has been a challenge for the task force; though, he emphasized it’s not due to a lack of good faith in the parties. Rather, he said, it’s ensuring that landowner, tribal and conservation interests are addressed from all   angles.

   “We are very optimistic that we’re going to reach a final agreement in the very near future. The parties are continuing to work in positive direction,” Whitman said.  

    ljarrell@heraldandnews.com  ; @LMJatHandN



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