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Accord builds in Klamath Basin

Agricultural and tribal leaders are working together on what would be a historic plan to deal with water shortages

The Oregonian 10/04/03, Michael Milstein

KLAMATH FALLS -- Klamath Basin tribes and farmers two years ago stood on opposite sides as farms lost their irrigation water to a federally protected fish long valued by tribes as a food source.

Now they seek to resolve the region's divisive water battle through a historic accord that could return to tribes ancestral lands the size of Rhode Island while downsizing farms at least in dry years.

Recent meetings here have drawn nearly 20 leaders from Southern Oregon and Northern California. Their goal: to assure farms a predictable, if reduced, water supply and to restore fish and wildlife promised to the tribes under their 1864 treaty with the government.

"It's the first time I've felt there's a genuine opportunity to make things better," said John Crawford, a farmer in Tulelake, Calif., and board member of the Tulelake Irrigation District. "We're all going to have to give a little bit, but nobody's going to give more than they need to keep their communities whole."

The talks come as the Bush administration continues weighing a return to the tribes of roughly 690,000 acres of former reservation land that is now national forest.

"I think we're all concerned that solutions, if they're going to take, need to come from folks out there," said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, deputy chief of staff to U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton. "We can help and bring resources to bear, but they're the ones who know what can work for the long term."

The Oregonian joined key participants last week in touring affected areas. They said any compact probbly will involve several key elements:

Intensive restoration of fish and wildlife habitat throughout the Klamath drainage, especially in its headwaters that feed Upper Klamath Lake. The lake is home to endangered suckers, prized by tribes, but suffers declining water quality.

A transfer of segments of the Winema and Fremont national forests to the Klamath Tribes. The tribes have sought return of the former reservation land almost since the U.S. government bought them out more than 50 years ago.

Shrinking of farms within the 220,000-acre Klamath Project during dry years and perhaps permanently. Agriculture leaders have firmly resisted permanent downsizing, but others argue it's essential to reduce water demand.

Assurances that remaining farms will receive water in dry years. Some could come from new reservoirs now under study.

Resolution of overlapping water rights in the upper end of the basin. The state has tried to settle these, unsuccessfully, for more than 20 years. The Klamath Tribes claim a priority right to all water in the basin. But tribes could yield to farms if suckers and other species recover.

Reduced power rates for farmers. Klamath farms now enjoy very cheap power to run irrigation pumps, but the deal will expire in 2006, and prices could jump tenfold or more.

The alternative: more conflict The alternative to a compact, participants say, is more conflict: in the courts and in the broader Klamath Basin community, with a persistent divide between tribes and agricultural interests.

Tribal members and farmers last week toured the Klamath Project -- the first time many had spent time together, glimpsing each other's views.

Some estimated the likelihood of an accord at 50-50. Others said it was better than that.

"There's a lot of listening that needs to take place that hasn't in the past," said Becky Hyde, who runs a ranch at the headwaters of the Klamath River. "Some of us are getting tired of our reputation in the basin for not being able to get along."

Attention by the Bush administration presents a rare chance to advance a compact through Congress, many said. The return of land to the tribes and portions of a water rights settlement would require congressional approval.

"I hope all parties in this feel that the window of opportunity is opening and is probably as wide as it will ever get," said Allan Foreman, chairman of the Klamath Tribes. "We're always cautious about what the government does. But I think there's an awareness now that this can really happen."

He said he hopes to have a plan to advance to Congress this winter.

Critics, among them environmental and fishing groups, contend the administration advanced the interests of agriculture at the expense of wildlife and the tribes dependent on it.

But Foreman said Bush officials have treated the Klamath Tribes fairly.

Tribes plan for regained land "I have always felt all the way through that they're very genuine," he said. "I've never felt they're unjustly favoring agriculture over other groups. I really feel they're trying to do what's right."

Tribes have elaborate plans for the land they hope to regain.

They drafted two of the region's top forestry experts -- Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington and Norman Johnson of Oregon State University -- to draw a blueprint that, in seeking to restore an original ponderosa pine landscape, calls for selective logging in thickets that grew during decades of firefighting and for plantings to improve wildlife habitat and stream quality.

More than two years in the making, the blueprint underwent extensive peer review and will be released publicly within a few weeks, Foreman said.

"I predict this will be the gold standard for forest management plans," he said.

Healthy land and wildlife are keys to restoring the tribe's self-sufficiency, tribal leaders say.

"I don't think it's much different from what the other folks in the basin want, either," said Jeff Mitchell, a former tribal chairman.

The debacle of 2001 was a long time coming. Klamath water is overtapped, facing demands from farms, wildlife and tribes at the upper and lower ends of the Klamath River. Dry years such as 2001 prove there is often not enough to go around.

If another such situation is to be avoided, all parties must give something up, say those involved in the current talks.

"There has to be a 'share-the-pain' component to this by all parties," Foreman said. "If we're going to achieve certainty for all of us, there has to be a reduction in agriculture in the basin."

Farmers this year participated in a water-bank plan that idled farmland in exchange for a per-acre federal payment, freeing water for remaining crops. Agricultural leaders say they could accept continued idling in dry years, but would more firmly resist permanent farm buyouts also proposed.

Some in community excluded Even if a water agreement is reached, opposition is likely. Turning over public land to the tribes sparks controversy. Some fear a deal will sell out ranch land above Upper Klamath Lake, where habitat restoration is critical and cool, clean water especially valuable.

The current negotiations have excluded parts of the community who backed farmers through the bitter summer of 2001, some say.

"You're never going to get a comprehensive settlement through secret talks," said Roger Nicholson, a ranch owner in the upper basin who said he has not been invited to participate.

The talks have not included environmental groups or tribes at the lower end of the Klamath River concerned about the health of salmon there. But the discussion has just begun and will soon expand to include more public involvement, said Dan Keppen, director of the Klamath Water Users Association




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