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Klamath pact creates concern

Talent Irrigation District manager, customers wonder if agreement to remove four Klamath River dams could lead to water cuts locally

Top PhotoPear grower Ron Meyer walks by a holding pond at his orchard in Talent. The debate among farmers, ranchers and American Indians over Klamath Basin water has raised concerns that Jackson County farmers could lose access to water that is piped in from the Klamath River. - Jim Craven

An intricate network of lakes and canals brings water from the Klamath Basin to the 14,000 pear trees that Talent orchardist Ron Meyer calls his "pampered darlings."

Meyer thought his right to that water was secure because Congress authorized the Bureau of Reclamation in 1954 to improve the Talent Irrigation District. Three hundred miles of canals provide Klamath Basin water to Jackson County farmers and orchardists, but they fear their supply of that water may be affected by complicated negotiations about where the water will flow in the future.

"If we were cut dramatically, we would have to do something else," Meyer said. "The water rights are precious."

The much-debated Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement could lead to the removal of four dams, and it outlines water allocations among a variety of interested parties. The agreement could be signed in 2010.

More than half of the water that flows through the TID canals comes from the Klamath side, filling reservoirs such as Howard Prairie, Hyatt and Emigrant. Jackson County orchardists and water managers are concerned that the agreement could reduce their Klamath water or turn off the tap completely.

Jim Pendleton, TID manager, said that in general about 15,000 acre-feet of the district's water is from the Rogue River basin, while 20,000 to 24,000 acre-feet flow from the Klamath.

"We don't want to lose it," Pendleton said. "We don't want to just give it away."

If the Klamath water supply to Jackson County was stopped, it would cripple the water district, Pendleton said.

"A few drought years would put us under quickly," he said.

Much of the Klamath water serves the Talent district, but it also feeds the Medford and Rogue River districts' canals.

Jeff Mitchell, a lead negotiator for the Klamath tribes, said local farmers shouldn't be worried, that the water diverted to Jackson County is not in contention as various parties work through the complicated restoration agreement.

"It's not a lot of water in the big picture," Mitchell said. "I do understand that to folks over there (their share of the water) is the big picture."

He said the agreement that is being worked out is more concerned with preserving or improving fisheries and sharing resources.

"At the end of the day, I don't see anybody giving up their rights," he said.

He said rumors that the agreement could have an impact on Jackson County farmers are just part of what he sees as an effort to undermine the ongoing discussions.

"That's the fear-mongering that goes on by certain people," he said.

But others say tribal authorities have made no such promises on paper and that, regardless of the intentions of current tribal leaders, future decision-makers could change course and close the valves.

Medford resident Larry Nicholson, who has a ranch in the Klamath basin, said he's worried the agreement will ultimately give American Indians total control over the water used by local farmers.

"It gives the Indians all the water rights without any due process," he said.

For orchardists like Meyer, an adequate supply of water is essential to raising fruit that will sell in today's demanding market.

The right combination of water, labor and chemicals means that 80 percent of the pears he grows are the right size for market, he said.

When the family orchard started 100 years ago, Meyer's grandfather got by with dry farming, but the pears were smaller than what will sell today, he said.

In the early 1900's, there were 400 pear growers in the Rogue Valley; currently there are just 15, he said.

Meyer said he already tries to maximize the water efficiency of his orchard. He uses a sprinkler system that operates in two-week cycles to provide the right amount of water to size his fruit for the market.

Meyer said he's not sure about all the legal debates over the Klamath water, but he does know that local orchardists won't give up their share without a fight.

"If there is going to be pear orchards and farming here, we need the water," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

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              Page Updated: Monday December 07, 2009 12:49 AM  Pacific

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