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Klamath task force reaches water agreement

Posted 12/5/2013

Seattle P-I

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — Ranchers and the Klamath Tribes signed a tentative deal Monday in Klamath Falls for sharing water in the drought-stricken Upper Klamath Basin.

The rest of a special task force on water issues were to join them Tuesday at the Oregon Institute of Technology to announce the 17-page agreement in principle.

Their goal is to reach a final agreement early next year that will guide legislation to be offered by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden to break a logjam in Congress over resolving Klamath water battles. Republicans in the House have blocked legislation to implement existing agreements to remove four dams from the Klamath River to help struggling salmon runs, restore environmental damage from a century of irrigation development in the Klamath Basin, and provide a higher level of certainty for farmers on a federal irrigation project straddling the Oregon-California border that has had to shut off services to conserve water for protected fish.

Under the tentative deal, ranchers on the Wood, Williamson and Sprague rivers would agree to significantly cut water use to help provide for farmers on the Klamath Restoration Project downstream, and support fish habitat restoration projects and tribal economic projects, such as securing federal money to buy back private timberlands once part of the reservation. The tribes would agree not to cut off irrigation if ranchers significantly reduce their irrigation withdrawals. The agreement supports low-cost federally generated electricity to help ranchers reduce water pumping costs.

The task force was brought together last June by Wyden, Gov. John Kitzhaber and others after water was shut off for the first time to hundreds of ranchers in the upper basin to meet water rights newly awarded to the Klamath Tribes on their former reservation lands.

Cattle rancher Roger Nicholson, who signed the agreement in principle, said last summer’s water shutoffs cost ranchers hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to their herds and land values.

“If you could bring peace, it would be well worthwhile and would be very welcome to the community,” he said. “The community needs to stay economically whole for ranchers and tribes. We lived in peace for years and want to re-establish that. It only comes about by having everybody fairly and equitably treated.”

After decades of a process called adjudication, the Klamath Tribes were granted water rights to time immemorial on their former reservation lands. To protect endangered sucker fish that spawn in those rivers, the tribes called for enforcement of their water rights, forcing irrigation shutoffs to hundreds of ranchers.

Nicholson is part of a group that has challenged the adjudication. He said a final agreement would include terms for ranchers being paid to cut water use. If a final agreement is reached and put into action by legislation going through Congress, the challenge would likely be dropped.

Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry said the agreement in principle was a critical step in resolving years of conflict over water, but there is a lot of negotiating left to do.

“The intention is to address water management issues, protect the viability of the agriculture community, which includes protecting the resource concerns the Klamath tribes have,” he said.

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