GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A
deal to share scarce water between ranchers and the Klamath
Tribes has cleared another hurdle on its way toward becoming
part of a bill in Congress to overcome a century of fighting
over water in the Klamath Basin.
Parties announced Wednesday they have finished negotiations
to overcome last summer's irrigation shut-off to cattle
ranches in the upper Klamath Basin after the Klamath Tribes
exercised newly awarded senior water rights to protect fish.
The deal still must be voted on by the tribes and ranchers.
If approved, it becomes part of Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron
Wyden's effort to pass legislation authorizing removal of
four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River to help
struggling salmon, and another that gives farmers on a
federal irrigation project greater assurances of water
during drought. That legislation has been stalled by House
"This agreement is nothing short of historic," Gov. John
Kitzhaber said in a statement. "On one of the more complex
issues facing the state, people committed their time, energy
and expertise to come up with solutions that support a
stable agricultural economy and healthy fisheries and
The parties came together after 30 years of a process known
as adjudication to settle water rights in the Sycan, Wood
and Williamson rivers, which flow through the former
reservation lands of the Klamath Tribes into Upper Klamath
Lake, ended with the tribes gaining water rights to time
immemorial. The agreement addresses some outstanding issues
from that process.
When drought hit last year, the tribes and the Klamath
Reclamation Project called their senior water rights,
forcing watermasters to go to each ranch drawing water from
the rivers and telling them they had to stop, turning green
pastures to brown.
The negotiations could not have been possible without the
shut-off, which forced ranchers to sell of their herds or
move them, said rancher Becky Hyde.
Ranchers face an even tougher year this year, because with
drought continuing and another irrigation shut-off likely,
many no longer have any cattle to sell, added rancher Andrea
With a federal drought declaration in place in neighboring
California, Klamath County ranchers qualify for federal
grants to help them through the hard times, said Richard
Whitman, natural resources adviser to the governor. If the
deal becomes law, it includes further federal payments to
ranchers who fence their stock out of the rivers, and plant
trees to help keep water temperatures cool for fish.
Reduced water withdrawals by ranchers under the agreement
will increase flows into Upper Klamath Lake by 30,000 acre
feet, where they will benefit endangered sucker fish that
are sacred to the tribes. The water will also be available
to the Klamath Reclamation Project, a federal irrigation
project straddling the Oregon-California border that has
seen irrigation cutbacks during drought to protect suckers
and salmon in the Klamath River.
Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry said the agreement
provides a balance that will benefit the entire region
economically. It also offers help for the tribes' efforts to
regain control over timberlands they hope will restore an
economic foundation for the tribes lost along with their
reservation in the 1950s.
The cost of the combined agreements goes from a 2007
estimate of $970 million, to $550 million, due in part to
increased pledges of funding from Oregon and California,
said John Bezdek, special assistant to the secretary of
Jim McCarthy, a spokesman for the conservation group
WaterWatch, said the extra water going into the lake was
welcome, but not enough to overcome water problems
throughout the basin, particularly on the national wildlife
refuges that depend on the leftovers from the Klamath
Reclamation Project. He added that cost reductions relied on
accounting "gimmicks," and remained close to $1 billion for