Klamath Tribes Negotiate Water Deal With Oregon Ranchers

A view from a home near Klamath Falls Oregon./Photo by Allie Hostler, Two Rivers Tribune

By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune

Farmers and ranchers in the Upper Klamath Basin agreed to restore fish habitat and push for removal of four dams on the Klamath River less than a year after the Klamath Tribes exercised their senior water rights to cutoff irrigation in the area.

Don Gentry, Chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said, “It’s nothing short of remarkable that we’ve come to this point.”

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley said, “People have been fighting over water in the Klamath Basin for decades, but this historic agreement is a vision for sharing water in a manner that benefits everyone.”

Many of the farmers and ranchers in Oregon’s Upper Klamath Basin were strongly opposed to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), but were forced to the negotiating table by the cutoff last year.

Craig Tucker, the Klamath Campaign Coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said, “All of a sudden, these very conservative land owners realized that if they were going to have any ability to irrigate at all, they’d need to make a deal with the Klamath Tribes.”

The proposed agreement would have the Klamath Tribes agree not to exercise some of their water rights in exchange for an increase of flows to Upper Klamath Lake by 30,000 acre-feet, a program to restore streams that feed the upper lake, and $45 million in combined economic aid for the Tribes.

The agreement must still be ratified by both the tribal membership and Upper Basin ranchers.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden helped push the negotiations forward and leads efforts to revive and combine the KBRA and KHSA into a single bill in Congress.

“The charge of the task force was to build on the good work of the KBRA and KHSA to resolve water rights in the Upper Klamath Basin. That’s exactly what happened,” Wyden said. “I look forward to final ratification by the parties and to working with the Governor, Senator Merkley, and my colleagues in Congress to pass legislation that makes this agreement a reality.”

Despite the bipartisan support in Oregon, an expensive dam-removal and environmental-restoration bill might be a tough sell in Congress during a time of national budget cuts and deep political divides.

Hoopa Tribal Vice Chairman Ryan Jackson was in Washington D.C. two weeks ago. He said he didn’t see much support there for a revived KBRA.

“Everything we’re hearing is that the KBRA isn’t something that people in Congress want to grab with both hands and hold close to them,” Jackson said. “It seemed to be something people wanted to keep away from.”

Local Tribes are divided over the KBRA. The Yurok and Karuk Tribes support it, while the Hoopa Valley Tribe and Resighini Rancheria are strongly opposed to trading away tribal water rights for dam removal.

Hydrologist Robert Franklin, with Hoopa Tribal Fisheries, said the latest agreement looked like that kind of a trade at first glance.

“It suggests that they’re settling on a policy that puts priority on getting back their land base, and uses their water rights as a bargaining chip,” Franklin said.

The Klamath Tribes lost most of their tribal land between 1954 – when the U.S. Government terminated recognition of their tribal sovereignty and divided the communal reservation land into individual plots – and 1986, when they regained U.S. government recognition.

The agreement will help the Klamath Tribes regain land and build a timber mill in the Mazama Forest.

Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said, “I am very pleased with the Klamath Tribal Council’s support of the Proposed Agreement. If approved, we will see an increase in water flows, improved habitat for current and future fish populations, and economic opportunities for our Tribe and Tribal members. It will help us restore our homeland and honor the Treaty our ancestors signed 150 years ago.”

Water deals between tribes on the Klamath River side of the Klamath River Basin and irrigators also have a potentially disastrous effect on the Trinity River half of the Basin.

Trinity River fish  rely on the Lower Klamath River until they reach the Trinity confluence in Weitchpec.

Humboldt County and the Hoopa Valley Tribe have fought to make sure that additional water flows were released into the Trinity River when water levels in the Trinity and Lower Klamath were dangerously low.

Humboldt 3rd District Supervisor Mark Lovelace said, “Hoopa has been a strong partner on this issue.”

Without those additional flows, tens of thousands of fish could have died in the Lower Klamath River before reaching the Trinity River, because of crowding, warm water, and disease.

Director Mike Orcutt, of Hoopa Tribal Fisheries, said, “We’re here in court defending water releases for fisheries and they’re using Trinity water to make up for Klamath water they’ve bargained away.”

Franklin said, “They could get a lot more for their water rights than they’re getting.”

Tucker disagreed, and he said the adjudication ruling in favor of the Klamath Tribes’ water rights was still under appeal.

“Winning adjudication is one thing, but actually using the water right to get what you want – which is fish restoration – is another,” Tucker said. “What the Klamath Tribes did was make what they felt was the best strategic decision to restore the fish habitat.”

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