Klamath Tribes and feds exercise water rights in Oregon, will shut off irrigation for ranches

GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Tens of thousands of acres in Oregon’s drought-stricken Klamath Basin will have to go without irrigation water this summer after the Klamath Tribes and the federal government exercised newly confirmed powers that put the tribes in the driver’s seat over water use — a move ranchers fear will be economically disastrous.

Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Mike Connor said Monday that they were making what is known as a “call” on their water rights for rivers flowing into Upper Klamath Lake in Southern Oregon.

The tribes are maintaining river flows for fish, while the bureau is using its water for the Klamath Reclamation Project, a federal irrigation project covering 225,000 acres along the Oregon-California border south of Klamath Falls. Wildlife refuges fed from the project are an important nesting and feeding area for migrating waterfowl.

“Our water rights are essential to the protection of our treaty resources,” Gentry said in a statement. “I think everyone knows the tribes are committed to protecting our treaty fisheries, and this is an important step in that direction.”

The new powers were made possible by a March ruling of an administrative law judge confirming the tribes have the oldest water rights in the upper basin — and therefore have first say over controlling it.

The calls authorized the local water master, who works for the Oregon Department of Water Resources, to start checking river flows and telling ranchers with junior rights to turn off pumps and shut headgates on diversion dams until enough water remains in the rivers to meet the bureau and tribes’ rights. That process is likely to take several weeks. The state Department of Water Resources sent in extra personnel so three two-person teams will handle the shutoffs. Each team will notify the sheriff where they are at all times for safety. As the summer continues and rivers continue to drop, even more ranches will be shut off.

The action plays into a continuing political battle over removing three hydroelectric dams owned by Pacificorp on the Klamath River to allow salmon to return to the upper basin to spawn. Ranchers in the upper basin are split between those who support a companion settlement that would have eased water tensions, and those who bet on the legal process to give them senior water rights.

Rancher Becky Hyde, who favoured settlement talks, said the call was no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention since the 2001 drought shut off water to project farmers, but still would be devastating.

“We’ve been wracking our brains trying to figure out where there might be additional potential grazing lands,” she said. “My understanding is we’ve kind of got drought conditions across the state, so grass is tight already. So it’s pretty much a nightmare, is what it is.”

It would cost some $27 million to feed hay to the more than 70,000 cattle in the area affected by the calls, and because Congress has not enacted a new Farm Bill, there is no federal disaster aid available to ranchers, she said.

The combined water calls would shut off all their surface water irrigation, and might affect some wells, Hyde said. She and her husband shipped some of their cattle to family ranches, and figured they had enough pasture to feed the rest for six more weeks before starting to buy hay, which they normally don’t do until November.

Klamath County Commissioner Tom Mallams, himself an irrigator, has warned there could be violence. Cattle rancher Roger Nicholson has said shutting off irrigation would be an economic disaster, because ranchers will have nowhere else to feed their herds. Both men oppose dam removal and the accompanying settlement.

Gentry and Connor both said the calls highlighted the value of negotiated settlements that would make it unnecessary to go through the water rights process.

The upper basin covers 138,000 acres around the communities of Fort Klamath, Chiloquin and Sprague River in the area of the tribes’ former reservation, most of it irrigated pasture that feeds more than 100,000 head of cattle. Though the federal government took away the reservation in the 1950s, courts have determined the tribes retained their hunting, fishing and water rights, dating to time immemorial.

The bureau’s rights date to 1905, when the Klamath Reclamation Project started drawing water from the lake. The refuge water rights date between 1928 and 1964.

The bureau has estimated that the combined calls would require irrigation shutoffs to 58,000 acres.

The region is struggling with drought after a dry winter left little snow in the mountains, which feeds the basin’s rivers and the lake.

The tribes are using their water to maintain flows in the Wood, Williamson, Sprague and Sycan rivers for fish. They include endangered suckers held sacred by the tribes, redband tout, and ultimately salmon, if dams on the Klamath River are removed.

Even with the water resulting from the call, the bureau will have only two-thirds of the water it needs from the Klamath Project, leading to some cutbacks there.

The actions reverse the roles from 2001, when the bureau had to shut off irrigation to most of the project to protect fish, but cattle ranchers in the upper basin still had water to irrigate their pastures.