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An End To The Klamath Water Wars?

US Fish & Wildlife

At the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, Governor John Kitzhaber, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and an array of state and federal officials met with Klamath water users. They came to unveil what they called an historic agreement.

Ron Wyden: We now have a game plan for economic development, agricultural prosperity and environmental restoration throughout the basin.

The agreement was hammered out by a task force put together last summer, when the prospects for a settlement of the rancorous water disputes seemed remote. The state of Oregon had just ruled that the Klamath tribes and the US government had senior water rights in the basin. That led to farmers and ranchers in the Upper Klamath, outside the federal irrigation project, being cut off. Tensions ran high as irrigators watched their crops wither for lack of water.

The governor, the senators and Congressman Greg Walden formed the task force to try to forge an agreement all the basin’s water users could live with, and to end, once and for all, the Klamath water wars.

Two other agreements -- dealing with the lower basin and its hydro dams -- have already been reached but not yet ratified by Congress. In Klamath Falls, Wyden said this latest effort had succeeded by rising above the politics of self-interest .

Ron Wyden: On issue after issue, the members of the task force agreed to give up the right to obstruct, in the name of the greater good.

Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, says one realization was a major factor in the breakthrough.

Don Gentry: Really, what happened is there wasn’t sustainable  irrigation, there’s too many demands on the little water we have.

Gentry praised the part of the agreement whereby some irrigators would voluntarily lease or retire their water rights, freeing up an anticipated 30,000 acre-feet of water.

Don Gentry: Retiring that 30,000 acre-feet of water is critical to provide the balance for sustainable ag and sustainable fisheries.

Low water flows have been blamed for worsening the plight of several species of endangered fish, including salmon and sucker fish that are a traditional staple of the tribal economy.

While the Klamath have sought more water and environmental restoration to rebuild their fisheries, what farmers and ranchers hoped to get out of the agreement was greater certainty; knowing how much water they could count on year to year, how much they’d have to pay for electricity to power irrigation pumps. Becky Hyde, an irrigator and board member of the Upper Klamath Water Users Association, says she thinks the agreement achieves that.

Becky Hyde: So I’m hoping what we’re doing is laying a foundation for our children and our grandchildren – who will never remember this, you know? – which puts down the foundations of stability for the long run.

Hyde says the state water rights ruling last summer was “a reality check” for irrigators. Dealt a losing hand, she says she and others have wearied of the fight.

Becky Hyde: I think there’s a tiredness that comes with us being in years of battle, against one another and communities pitting themselves, sometimes making divisions among neighbors.

But Hyde’s work isn’t over yet. She and the other stakeholders need to sell this agreement to those neighbors over the next month or so. Senator Wyden hopes to have a final agreement in place by mid-January, when he wants to bring a bill before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, which he chairs.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.