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MailTribune.com
  • Klamath commissioner inflames water dispute

  • and Luke Robison
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  • and Luke Robison
    It's time for some of our local elected officials here in Klamath County to take accountability for their statements on the water challenges facing our community. In a May 8 Associated Press article about the Klamath Basin Water Adjudication that appeared in the Mail Tribune, Klamath County Commissioner Tom Mallams is quoted as saying, "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 "¦" Earlier, Mallams was quoted in the April 19 edition of the Wall Street Journal, stating, "they shut water off here, there could be some violence."
    Commissioner Mallams' comments are ironic and irresponsible. Ironic because before he was elected he was a staunch advocate for the water rights adjudication process, claiming it was the solution to the basin's water challenges. He helped lead the attack against the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), which includes a negotiated settlement of tribal water claims, urging fellow irrigators to rely instead on adjudication — despite the well-documented fact that tribal water right claims regularly rise to the top in adjudication proceedings elsewhere in the West. That's what happened in the Oregon process, too. The Klamath Tribes received the most senior rights.
    That our county commissioner would be disappointed, even angry about this outcome is understandable. He and his Upper Basin off-Project neighbors may experience water shortages this summer and in the future as a result of enforcement of state water rights, and we don't wish that on anyone. It's Mallams' allusions to violence that are irresponsible. His professed concern about "something bad" happening feels more like a thinly veiled threat and, worse, a justification for violence. He certainly said nothing to discourage "something bad" from happening. Responsible elected officials just don't act that way.
    The family farms and ranches that are part of the Klamath Reclamation Project's irrigation districts chose a different path. Most of us decided not to leave our fate up to uncertain outcomes decided by someone else. Instead, many of us did our homework and chose to civilly negotiate a water rights settlement with the Klamath Tribes that would provide security for those we represent. As a result, the senior tribal water rights won't be exercised in a negative way against farms and ranches in the Klamath Project.
    In 2001 when the Endangered Species Act caused water to be shut off to irrigators on the Klamath Reclamation Project there was no violence, despite a heavily publicized standoff between federal marshals and parties who supported irrigation interests. Mallams talks often about how he stood to support Project irrigators at the head gates that year. He and others with water rights junior to the Klamath Project were also able to irrigate their farms and ranches during that time because the adjudication process was still grinding slowly forward and could not be enforced. Notably, Mallams took the position in the adjudication that water rights do not even exist for a majority of lands in the Klamath Reclamation Project; in other words, most family farms and ranches in the Klamath Project (including ours) should never get water. Unsurprisingly, and like his challenges to other claims, this position was rejected.
    Despite comments to the contrary by Mallams, relying on adjudication didn't work for the off-project water users that insisted on that path. Hoping to change the outcome of this process that started decades ago, he and a small group have now challenged the adjudication decision, filing litigation to stop the application of the prior appropriation doctrine in the Basin for many more years.
    Certainly, Mallams and his neighbors have the right to challenge decisions they don't like. Where we think that he goes wrong is in his finger-pointing and implied threats of violence as well as his hypocrisy about supporting all of the irrigated agriculture in Klamath County.
    Some of us held out hope that, once in office, Mallams would take the high road and look to be a statesman; instead he is choosing to use the bully pulpit to further divide our community. If "something bad happens" this year, the blame won't be on those upholding a century-old water law, or those exercising a legally enforceable senior water right. The blame should be pointed squarely at the Klamath County Government building.
    Gary Derry of Malin and Luke Robison of Merrill farm and are part of small irrigation districts that manage water in the southern portion of Klamath County in the Klamath Reclamation Project. They and their families primarily raise alfalfa and grass hay as well as a variety of small grain crops.
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