Much of the West is entering a second straight summer of drought. In Southern Oregon’s Klamath Basin, ranchers are once again watching their pastureland go dry for a lack of water. That has them preparing to sell their livestock earlier – and for lower prices – than they’d like.
EarthFix reporter Devan Schwartz explains how those ranchers are part of an unlikely alliance that could lead to a historic solution to the region’s long-standing water wars.
Watermaster Scott White has a difficult job. He’s the one who tells ranchers to turn off the water they use for cattle and crops.
White: “It was probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do – it was a terrible feeling.”
White’s unpleasant duties were the result of a turning point that happened last year: After decades of court wrangling, state water rights became enforceable in the Klamath Basin.
This is how it plays out. Those with the oldest rights make a call to the State of Oregon for the amount of water they’re legally granted. Until those amounts are met, the watermaster shuts off so-called junior water users.
White: “It was extremely difficult when you’re driving up and down doing your follow-up and seeing all those fields dry up and folks aren’t out working the fields.”
In drought years like last year and this year, that means a lot of spigots turned off, a lot of fields going dry.
So who are the senior water users? In the Klamath Basin, it’s two main parties — a group of farmers from a federal irrigation project, and the Klamath Tribes.
When project farmers make a call, water is diverted from Upper Klamath Lake to fields of onions, potatoes, mint, horseradish and grains.
Tribal water rights are a different story. Their water is kept in rivers and streams until it reaches the lake – keeping it from farms and pastures. That water is meant to improve stream health for fish and native plants that are harvested on former tribal lands.
Don Gentry is chairman of the Klamath Tribes. He says the long-term goal is restoring waterways for the return of salmon. Four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River have blocked salmon passage for nearly 100 years.
Gentry: “I’m always aware of the fact that we don’t have salmon up here anymore. A number of our tribal members, elders, people that have gone on and aren’t with us here today, talk about the importance of those fisheries and where they caught the fish at.”
In the flashpoint summer of 2001, the tribes and farmers were in strong opposition. The government kept water in the river system to support fish while project farmers saw their irrigation water shut off.
The bad blood ran deep. Vigils, protests, and threats of violence prompted the government to send in federal marshals.
For a long time, the tribes and farmers say they could barely sit down at the same table. Now they’re more united than ever.
Both groups support a bill that would remove the Klamath River dams, stabilize the Basin’s water supplies and do wide-scale environmental restoration.
Again, Don Gentry.
Gentry: “We really believe that what we’ve built into this is going to help us immeasurably to restore our fish.”
Greg Addington represents farmers from the federally funded Klamath Basin Irrigation Project. He says the bill would benefit many stakeholders who joined an agreement to make it happen.
Addington: “This agreement doesn’t make more water. What it does is it gives people more certainty, so we’d be knowing early in the season what our amount of water is so that we would avoid involuntary shortages –and that’s really the big thing.”
Addington says the Klamath Tribes made the first move in their partnership.
Addington: “They were the ones also that came to the table and said, ‘Look, there’s a better way — and a way to share water.”
Many ranchers were holdouts. They hoped to be awarded the best water rights. When the tribes and the project farmers prevailed, they no longer had an incentive for staying away from the bargaining table.
The supporters for the legislation now includes a majority of those ranchers.
So even during a drought year with widespread water shutoffs in the Klamath Basin, there’s hope for a solution.
Experts say that solution would have historical and ecological significance.
Hughes: “This has never happened in our country — and to my knowledge it hasn’t happened anywhere in the world.”
That’s Michael Hughes. He directs the environmental sciences program at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls.
Hughes says the Klamath Basin’s natural resource challenges are more complex than any in the nation’s history. That includes Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River Delta, the Colorado River, or even the Columbia River here in the Northwest.
Hughes: “Each of them is overshadowed in some way or another by what’s happening in the Klamath.”
This latest plan to solve the Klamath Basin’s water woes may have momentum. But it has no guarantee of success.
Its fate is now in the hands of Congress. The Senate is expected to vote on it this year. It has the backing of all four of Oregon and California’s senators.
But there are many in Congress who are listening to the plan’s critics.
Some conservation groups say the bill doesn’t go far enough to bring water to parched wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin. And some ranchers are still fighting in court for better water rights.
Watermaster Scott White says he wishes the situation were different.
White: “If I could put something on my wish-list, the next ten years would be extremely wet. I can’t remember the last time I got a phone call complaining about too much water.”
And those calls certainly won’t be coming in this summer. With another season of drought and no political solution in hand, White is mostly hearing from ranchers who say there’s not enough water to go around.
Copyright 2014 Northwest Public Radio