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Short cash, water deal breaks down

Published Wednesday July 27, 2005


A lack of federal support has undone what was heralded earlier this year as a milestone agreement between the Klamath Tribes and irrigators above Upper Klamath Lake.

The agreement that sought to resolve longstanding disputes over water rights hinged on millions of dollars in federal funding to buy out newer water rights and implement water restoration projects.

But federal officials have shown no interest in allocating the funds, said former state Sen. Steve Harper, who helped broker the agreement.

"We sure haven't seen action," Harper told the Herald and News earlier this week.

Harper, who has been facilitating meetings between water stakeholders for a year, announced the agreement on Feb. 25 with Klamath Tribes Chairman Allen Foreman and Fort Klamath rancher Roger Nicholson.

They unveiled a four-page agreement that called for habitat improvement, protection of endangered species and increased water storage.

Foreman and Nicholson went to Washington, D.C., to pitch the agreement to the U.S. Interior Department. Although the officials were glad to see groups often at odds in the Klamath water issue coming together, no action has resulted.

"They have done just nothing," Nicholson said this week. He also said he believes Interior Department officials want to use tribal water requirements to gain more water for endangered species.

"There doesn't seem to be much interest in settling water issues on their part," Nicholson said. "It's impossible to settle anything."

Foreman was unavailable for comment, and Joe Hobbs, vice chairman of the Klamath Tribes, did not return a call from the Herald and News Tuesday.

Last year, Harper started working with various parties at odds in the state of Oregon's water adjudication process, a legal proceeding. His goal was to resolve conflicts outside of court.

The agreement they worked out would have led to the dropping of challenges to water right claims filed by irrigators above the lake, establishment of a habitat restoration committee and buyout of water rights for those whose rights were established later than 1961, after the termination of the Klamath Tribes and the end of their reservation.

Federal funds needed for the habitat restoration, and the water rights buyout, was the hitch.

"That was a death blow," Harper said.

The habitat restoration project would have cost $200 million, or $10 million per year for 20 years, Harper said. The water right buyout could have cost $10 million or more, depending on how much land would have been eligible.

Both Harper and Nicholson said they were frustrated because they thought they had crafted what federal officials have been asking for: a solution generated at the local level.

Nicholson said the parties will probably go back to the standard adjudication process, which has been ongoing for more than 20 years.

He said he didn't understand why the federal government didn't support their Basin-created solution.

"We had one, and it's just not going to happen I guess," he said.

Bill Bettenberg, director of the Interior Department's policy analysis office, was the federal government's point man on Klamath issues, but he is retiring. His last day is Friday, and Larry Finfer, the office's deputy director, is poised to take over many of his responsibilities.

Along with the water issue, Bettenberg was involved with the federal relicensing of Pacific Power's Klamath River hydroelectric project and talks about a restored reservation for the Klamath Tribes. Which issues Finfer will work on and which ones will be referred to someone else is still up in the air.

During their trip to Washington last spring, Foreman and Nicholson also met with members of the Oregon congressional delegation. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, who is among the group that has called for a Basin-based solution, said officials told him the Interior Department frowned on the agreement because it infringed on the rights of the Klamath Reclamation Project downstream.

"What may be good for the Upper Basin, would have done some damage to the lower Basin," Walden said.

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