The Klamath Tribes and the federal government called their water rights insouthern Oregon's Klamath Basin for the first time Monday, likely cutting off irrigation water to hundreds of cattle ranchers and farmers in the upper basin this summer.
The historic calls come after Oregon set water rights priorities earlier this year in the basin, home to one of the nation's most persistent water wars. Drought has cut water flows in upper basin rivers to 40 percent of normal.
"This is a devastating day," said Becky Hyde, a longtime cattle rancher in the upper basin's Sprague River Valley. "This is such a core piece of our economy. It's not like we can lean back on tourism and things can be OK."
The Klamath Tribes' water rights apply to flows in Upper Klamath Lake tributaries, including the Sprague, Williamson and Wood rivers that run through the tribes' former reservation.
In March, after 38 years of work, the state found that the tribes' water rights dated to "time immemorial," making them by far the most senior. That means the tribes will get water to protect fish in traditional fishing grounds, including two species of suckers on the endangered species list.
Farmers irrigating through the federal government's1905 Klamath ReclamationProject, covering roughly 200,000 acres that draw from the lake, will also get water, though they'll face restrictions, too.
But "off-project" irrigators on about 150,000 acres above the lake generally have junior water rights to reclamation-project irrigators. They'll have to tap wells if they can or see their water supplies reduced or shut off.Some 300 to 400 irrigators – and 70,000 to 100,000 cattle – could be impacted, upper basin water groups estimated. State officials said shut offs could begin as soon as Wednesday, and would be calibrated throughout the summer as river flows and weather dictate.
Jeff Mitchell, lead negotiator for the Klamath Tribes, said the tribes worked with Gov. John Kitzhaber's office and other water users in recent months to try to reach a compromise.
"We didn't get there," Mitchell said. "What we had left to protect our treaty resources was seeking an enforcement of our right. That's the only tool we have available to us right now."
The Klamath Basin's water struggles first hit the national spotlight in the drought year of 2001, when farmers using irrigation water from Upper Klamath Lake went dry and their plight became a rallying cry against putting fish before people.
In 2010, Oregon and California officials, along with PacifiCorp and tribal and environmental groups, signed a deal to remove four Klamath River hydropower dams and a Klamath Basin Restoration Agreeement to plow an extra $500 million into restoration.
The reclamation agreement set out sharing agreements in dry years between the tribes and reclamation project irrigators. It was also supposed to kick-start deal making with off-project irrigators.
But both deals have stalled in Congress, amid tight budgets and Republican opposition to dam removal. Klamath County voters elected opponents to the county board, which voted to withdraw from the agreements in February.
The tribes are still following the allocation agreements with reclamation project farmers. There are few in place with off-project irrigators.
Hyde is among those who support the deals. Had they passed Congress, she said, agreements likely would have been reached to share water equitably, helped by federal money to compensate ranchers who agreed to use less water. As it stands, she said, "we're going to take the big hit."
Other upper basin irrigators oppose the deal as too light on firm commitments. Opponents have also challenged the state's water rights allocations in court.
Garrett Roseberry, a cattle rancher and past president of the Sprague River Water Resource Foundation, said the restoration agreement doesn't have "any meat on the bones" when it comes to upper basin water allocations.
"There's still room to negotiate a solution that includes all parties," he said. "Everybody needs to keep a cool head and communication needs to be maintained no matter how difficult the situation gets."
In the short-term, the state is considering possibilities for subsidizing cattle feed to keep ranches going, perhaps drawing on federal dollars. Kitzhaber has declared a drought emergency in the area, allowing state agencies to request federal money and aid farmers and ranchers.
But upper basin irrigators said they're not banking on subsidies filling the gap. Feeding and watering 70,000 cattle for four months – rather than relying on irrigated pasture – would cost about $27 million, Hyde said.
Some ranchers are already moving cattle to more plentiful water supplies, though such spots are limited. They could sell cattle, but risk selling at fire-sale prices. Ranchers could ask to graze cattle in the basin's marshy wildlife refuges, but that would set off an environmental battle.
With the dry season underway, weather isn't likely to help out much, either.
"You can't keep praying for rain," said Danette Watson, a consultant to the Upper Klamath Water Users Association. "That's not the solution."
-- Scott Learn