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Water Claims & Confrontations: Irrigators say state shows lack of support

by STEPHEN FLOYD, Herald and News Feb 8, 2018 

 FORT KLAMATH —Upper Klamath Basin irrigators grew impatient with state regulators during a meeting Tuesday in Fort Klamath and blamed them for not doing more to protect their water rights.

Tuesday’s meeting, which saw roughly 20 residents gather at Crater Lake Resort, was the first in a series being held this week by the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) to discuss how the department plans to impose claims on water this summer.

Other meetings are scheduled for Thursday at 11:30 a.m. at the Chiloquin Community Center and Friday at 10 a.m. at Sprague River Community Center

Both irrigators and officials are concerned about the current warm and dry winter in the Klamath Basin. County leaders predict harsh irrigation restrictions if there are no improvements.

‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to irrigation

Tuesday’s meeting at Fort Klamath began with a history of water regulations in Oregon and an explanation of how water claims are upheld in the order they were created. But irrigators from the Wood River Valley said they had no time for this information and wanted OWRD to get to the point: would they or wouldn’t they get to irrigate this summer?

“We’re frustrated,” said irrigator Mike Wampler. “Were at the end of our rope.”

Wampler and others accused OWRD of being in error in the way they calculated in-stream flows to determine if water claims are being met. Though 2017 saw so much water in the Basin that multiple areas were flooded, the state still validated a claim on water initiated by the Klamath Tribes, the senior water right holder on tributaries feeding into Upper Klamath Lake.

Some irrigators claim that the Tribes have been making blanket calls on water without justification. OWRD representatives explained their department must investigate a claim by measuring flows before a call is validated.

Just rivers, not fields

Ivan Gall, administrator for OWRD’s field services division, said in-stream flows mean just that, water flowing in the steam, and his agency is not called on to measure flooding fields. He said it may appear sometimes like the river is experiencing an extreme flood event, but if the flows at the specific location defined in a water claim are not meeting the claim, a call for water can be validated.

“It’s to be measured at lower end because that is how the water claim is written,” he said.

Gall also said OWRD is working with the U.S. Geological Survey to help refine how they measure in the future.

Waiting for the courts

Water users then questioned if they will ever be able to irrigate again because, if a high-flow event like 2017 still allowed a call to be validated, they believe flows necessary for irrigation must be monumental.

“Only under Biblical snowpacks will anyone irrigate in the valley,” said Mike Martin. “…We are not going to irrigate if these are the flow rates we have to meet all years.”

Klamath County Watermaster Dani Watson said irrigators who feel anxious should wait for the adjudication of the Klamath Tribes’ water rights to resolve. When a judge issues a ruling on the matter, she said that will set the standard for validating water calls in the future.

“We need to run though the courts a little but more,” she said. “We’re not done yet.”

What about this summer?

When asked if there were any predictions for water availability this summer, Ken Stahr, chair of the Oregon Water Supply Availability Committee, said conditions are “starting to look less and less optimistic.” He said the Klamath Basin is roughly 30 percent of where it should be and, though rain and snow later this year could make up the difference, there’s a long way to go.

“We really would have to play catch-up big time to make this look like a regular season,” he said.

Stahr said water data is updated by his committee every other week and available online through OWRD, including flows and trends throughout the Basin.

Not encouraged

Following Tuesday’s presentation, Wampler said he still believes OWRD should re-examine how it evaluates water claims in order to allow irrigation, or else water users like him are “screwed.” Martin said he was not encouraged by what he heard and believes this will be another summer without water for farms and ranches.

“I don’t believe there will be any irrigation,” he said.

Watson said she would encourage residents with additional concerns to call her office at 541-883-4182. Though she may be handling more than 100 cases at a times, she said her department is “dedicated” to answering questions and helping people understand their water rights.




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