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Ranchers seek stay in Klamath water dispute

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

Posted 6/17/2013

Klamath County, Oregon – Ranchers who rely on water from the Sprague River in Klamath County, Ore., are worried about staying financially viable as they seek to resolve a water rights dispute.

On June 14, a state judge refused to issue a temporary restraining order that would have prevented Oregon water officials from shutting off irrigation water to the 39 ranches.

Elizabeth Howard, an attorney for the ranchers, said they will likely be back in court within the next month seeking a stay that would postpone the shutdowns until legal proceedings over tribal water rights are completed.

Without a stay, the ranchers won’t be able to irrigate their pastures or water their livestock, forcing them to sell their cattle at a loss, she said.

But she said the water rights adjudication process could take several years, throwing into question some of the ranchers’ ability to stay in business during the fight.

“If you can’t make your mortgage payment, you lose your ranch,” Howard said.

Bruce Topham, a rancher affected by the recent shutdowns, said ranchers in the Sprague River Valley pasture more than 70,000 cattle. Fears over water and feed unavailability are already forcing difficult decisions for some ranchers, he said.

“Cattle are being shipped out of the area because of the problem,” Topham said.

The controversy relates to how water rights held by the Klamath Tribes since “time immemorial” are quantified.

Earlier this year, the Oregon Department of Water Resources issued a “Findings of Fact and Order of Determination” setting out the validity of water rights claims in the Klamath River Basin.

The Sprague River ranchers are opposing the department’s findings as part of the adjudication process in state court. They argue the department didn’t follow standards set by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for how the tribal rights should be quantified.

The 9th Circuit recognized the tribes’ “time immemorial” water rights but held that the water allocations should be based on the amount they need for hunting and fishing, Howard said.

“That was intended to create a balance so you don’t see agricultural water taken away for other purposes,” she said.

While the adjudication may require two or three more years to finish, the dispute is currently focused on whether the Oregon Department of Water Resources’ findings are enforced.

The Sprague River ranchers argue that a stay should be issued automatically, while the tribes and the U.S. government dispute that argument. Also in question is the amount of the bond that the ranchers would have to pay if a stay was issued.

Capital Press was unable to immediately reach a representative of the Klamath Tribes or the state Department of Water Resources for comment.

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