Upper Klamath water rights issue settled
One of the most contested issues between irrigators and American Indian tribes in the Upper Klamath Basin has effectively been resolved, potentially simplifying talks on a much larger dam removal and restoration deal.
On Thursday, Klamath water users and the Klamath Tribes announced a settlement of water rights claims that stretch back nearly 30 years. The settlement is contingent on the approval of a broad-scale restoration agreement for the Klamath River and a tentative deal to tear out four hydropower dams owned by Pacificorp.
The water rights claims settlement brought by the Klamath Tribes against the Klamath Water Users Association was filed in the Oregon Office of Administrative Hearings, which is adjudicating water rights in the basin. The settlement covers disputes over water rights for Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River to the California border.
The tribes had asserted their rights to water to keep Upper Klamath Lake full enough to support endangered sucker fish, which they have a treaty right to fish. They currently can keep only one fish a year for ceremonial purposes. They also claimed rights to water in the river for salmon — which have not reached Oregon since the dams went up in the mid-1900s.
”After years of bitter disputes and lawsuits, we can turn our attention to providing economic and water stability to both our communities,” said Klamath Tribes Councilman Jeff Mitchell said.
Under the agreement, the water users would withdraw their challenge to the tribes’ claims, and the tribes would not litigate over water deliveries for irrigators that comply with the larger basin agreement.
The provisions of the settlement are identical to parallel stipulations contained in the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. Supporters of the agreement hold that farms in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s irrigation project and fish will both benefit because there will be certainty of water deliveries and water sent to the lower river for salmon. Opponents say that only farms are getting a guarantee, and that the agreement has failed to account for what flows will go to the river in dry years.
Paul Simmons with the Klamath Project Water Users said the issue is one of the largest in the Upper Klamath Basin, and with the approval of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, it will be resolved between Klamath Irrigation Project farmers and the tribes.
”There is no question this is borne out of the KBRA discussions,” Simmons said.
The tentative agreement between irrigators and the tribes wouldn’t preclude any other parties from challenging the tribes’ claims, according to a joint news release. But the Klamath Water Users Association said that the settlement would benefit other farms that don’t get water through the federal project.
Craig Tucker with the Karuk Tribe, which has signed the draft Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, said that the settlement resolves a critical issue in the upper basin.
”It should provide encouragement to everyone to pass the KBRA,” Tucker said.
If that agreement isn’t finalized, however, the settlement between the Klamath Tribes and the irrigators will buckle, and the conflict is likely to go back into the adjudication process.
”It’s not our place to critique how the Klamath Tribes can best settle their water claims,” said Lisa Brown, a staff attorney for WaterWatch of Oregon, which has been a critic of the KBRA. “However, we do have serious concerns about the broader water deal in the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.”