With drought looming, the state of Oregon is preparing for the likelihood it will have to shut off irrigation access for many of the 200 cattle ranchers and hay farmers in the upper Klamath Basin as the Klamath Tribes take control of senior water rights in the region for the first time in a century.
Since a formal declaration of drought last month, representatives of the governor's office have been making regular visits to Klamath County to brief local law enforcement and other officials on what they can expect if irrigation withdrawals are shut off. A nearby federal irrigation project saw weeks of bitter protests in 2001 when drought triggered a water shut-off to conserve flows for protected fish.
"Now if there are shortages of water in the basin, people can request that newer, more junior water rights are shut off so older water rights can be satisfied," Richard Whitman, natural resources adviser to the governor, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "There is a fairly high likelihood of that happening in the upper Klamath Basin this year."
Snowpack in the Cascade Range is thin, and prospects are diminishing for a wet spring. The state of Oregon earlier this year recognized the findings of a lengthy legal process known as adjudication that gave the tribes the most senior rights to the majority of the water flowing into Upper Klamath Lake, dating to time immemorial.
Don Gentry, chairman-elect of the Klamath Tribes, said no decision has been made yet, but it is likely the tribes will exercise the senior water rights granted earlier this year to protect endangered sucker fish, which spawn in rivers running into Upper Klamath Lake. The tribes are closely monitoring the flows in the rivers, which already are below the levels covered by their water rights, and a decision is likely in coming weeks.
"Given the endangered status of our (short-nosed sucker and Lost River sucker) fisheries, we have to do everything we can to protect them," Gentry said. "They are on the brink of extinction."
The largely independent irrigators on the Williamson, Sprague and Wood rivers, which flow into Upper Klamath Lake through the communities of Beatty, Chiloquin and Fort Klamath, escaped the irrigation shutoffs of 2001, when drought forced a shutdown of irrigation on most of the land covered by the Klamath Reclamation Project to save water for threatened salmon and endangered sucker fish.
The shut-off triggered angry confrontations between farmers and federal authorities who shut it off. Some turned their anger toward the tribes because they supported devoting scarce water to fish.
Many farms and ranches in the upper basin started withdrawing water May 1, and if a shut-off is ordered, they will lose crops of hay and alfalfa, said Tom Mallams, a Beatty hay farmer, Klamath County Commissioner, and tea party member. The threat of shutoffs already has hurt ranchers, who have lost contracts to feed cattle from California on irrigated pasture, he said.
Mallams is one of about 65 upper basin irrigators who formally have challenged the tribes' water rights, hoping to have them overturned in the second phase of the adjudication process.
"I have talked to neighbors, talked to irrigators, talked to friends," he said. "I hope that nothing bad happens here. But if something bad happens, I am going to point the finger at the state Water Resources Department and state leadership as the cause of it. The process they used has been very biased, very selective, in how they did the adjudication process."