This week, water regulators are ordering dozens of ranchers along Southern Oregon’s Williamson River to shut down their irrigation pumps. It’s the latest round of shutoffs near the headwaters of the Klamath River. The state says it is necessary to protect treaty rights of tribes who live downstream. But the water shut-off jeopardizes a multimillion-dollar cattle ranching industry.
Our story starts on the banks of the Sycan River. This little tributary is one of dozens that join together and form a massive lake in Southern Oregon’s Klamath basin, which in turn feeds the Klamath river. Tributaries like the Sycan provide water for salmon and suckerfish all along this river system. The Sycan is also where rancher Becky Hyde gets her water.
“ We irrigate out of the Sycan River, and water makes things magical wherever you end up putting it,” Hyde says.
Hyde’s ranch is a square of bright green that stands out in the dry juniper and sagebrush.
She has a water right, or in other words, a permit from the state to take water from the river every summer for her 500-acre ranch. Hyde uses the water to grow grass to feed beef cattle.
Up until last week, a giant pivoting sprinkler was irrigating this pasture where she’s raising about 80 one-year-old cows.
“Yearlings are my very favorite, because you can just and if you’re quiet they will all come circle around you and pretty soon they’ll be licking your foot," Hyde says.
But Hyde is trying to figure out somewhere else to move these young cattle. She is one of many ranchers along the upper tributaries of the Klamath River whom the state ordered ordered to stop irrigating. The move came after the Klamath Indian tribes, just downstream, said they needed more water left in the tributaries to protect their fishery. Hyde is upset, but she also respects the tribes right to the water.
“This is a tragedy for this community and our family personally," Hyde says. "But it is also a wake-up call to say people beside agriculture have a water right.”
“When all of this country was developing, no one was really thinking about fish or wildlife," says water rights attorney Bill Ganong.
For decades, the government encouraged draining marshland and converting it to farms. As a result, Ganong says the state of Oregon handed out lots of water rights.
“You don’t own the water," Ganong says. "Your water right is a right to use it; it’s a right of use.”
In an arid place like the Klamath basin, there often isn’t enough water available for everyone who has a right to use it. And the person with the oldest water right gets all the water that they are entitled to first.
But Ganong says there was a problem in the Klamath.
Water use had begun at a time when there was no formal process for filing an application. So the state had to come up with a system for looking backwards.
Hundreds of farmers and the Klamath tribes all claimed that their water rights were older than the state’s records, which only go back to 1909.
Similar water disputes have taken place on the Snake river in Idaho and in the Yakima basin in Washington.
In the Klamath, groups spent 38 years contesting who holds the senior water rights on tributaries like the Sycan River.
The state considered records in pioneer diaries and a treaty the tribes signed in 1864.
It finally reached a decision this year. The date of the tribe’s right? Time immemorial.
Every spring, the Klamath tribes hold a ceremony to celebrate the return of the suckerfish.
The now endangered suckerfish were once the staple food of this tribe. They look a little like miniature sharks with a vacuum cleaner for a mouth.
Don Gentry is Chairman of the Klamath Tribes. He says they’ve not been able to fish for suckerfish for the last 27 years.
“The condition of our fish is just so dire," Gentry says. "They’re on the brink of extinction. And I believe those fish are an indicator of the health of the watershed.”
Gentry says the decision to shut off water on neighboring ranches was difficult, but the Klamath Tribes have a responsibility to ensure that suckerfish- and the river ecosystem itself- survive.
And the tribes are in negotiations with ranchers to come up with a better plan to share water in dry years.
The tribe has already signed a settlement with hundreds of potato and onion farmers who all share an irrigation canal near Klamath falls.
Gentry says the tribe is honoring the settlement, and won’t ask those farmers to shut off their water this year.
The settlement is called the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, or KBRA for short.
“We as a people have shown our willingness to provide security and economic stability through our work in support of the KBRA and settlement,” Gentry says.
But while the row-crop farmers have chosen to settle with the tribe, Gentry says the tribe hasn’t reached a deal with cattle ranchers along the upper tributaries of the Klamath.
“They say we have an over-allocated source of water, I disagree," says Tom Mallams. He’s a rancher and a Klamath County commissioner.
“I think the over-allocation has come with new allocations that were never historically here,” Mallams says.
Mallams and a few dozen other ranchers plan to file a new legal challenge to the tribe’s water right. And they’ve asked a Klamath County judge to intervene in the water-shutoffs.
Mallams will testify when the Senate holds a committee hearing on the Klamath Basin water shortage this week.
Rancher Becky Hyde is also testifying. She plans to ask Congress to support the KBRA, the settlement between some farmers and the tribes.
“A lot of people care about this river and what’s happening," Hyde says. "And so we need a solution. Because it is senseless to go on like this.”
But the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement could be a hard sell to members of the Senate.
It would cost about 50 million dollars a year to implement.
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