With drought conditions worsening in Southern Oregon, the Klamath Tribes for the first time are exercising their claim as the most senior water rights holder in the Klamath Basin.
It’s a step that could make water unavailable for farmers to irrigate tens of thousands of acres of crops and alfalfa.
The tribes delivered what’s known as “a call” Monday to the Oregon Water Resources Department. That’s when a senior water rights holder gives notice that its water demands are outpacing available flows.
The Klamath Tribes’ water rights were legally recognized this spring as the oldest in the upper basin.
Four irrigation districts as well as the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service also filed calls today.
Scott White is the local watermaster for the Oregon Water Resources Department. He says the next step is to validate those calls - in order to confirm the requests are warranted.
“And then it’s my job to go find them water which usually means shutting off junior water right holders to satisfy their senior water right,” he said.
White says it’s too early to say just how much water will need to be diverted by the calls or how many junior rights holders along the Upper Klamath River will be affected.
The Klamath Tribes released a statement saying their rights are based on the needs of plant, wildlife, and fish species the tribes reserved the right to harvest in the Treaty of 1864. Those treaty rights include the harvesting of fish in several rivers, lakes and marshes of the Upper Klamath Basin. The Tribes’ water rights have been affirmed in the courts to have a “time immemorial” priority date.
The rights provide that specific quantities of water are to be maintained in stream to provide for fisheries and other treaty resources.
Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry says the decision was not made lightly, but was necessary to protect treaty resources. He says before this year the upper basin was subject to decades of unregulated water use that brought two native species of sucker fish close to instinction.
“We have the c’wam, which is commonly called the Lost River sucker and the quapdo (the shortnose sucker),” he says. “Those are important treaty fishery that we haven’t been able to fish for since 1986. They eventually ended up on the endangered species list in 1988.”
Klamath Basin Water Users Association Executive Director Greg Addington says Monday’s developments are setting the stage for would could be several dry months of conflict.
“Nobody wants to see anybody get harmed or hurt. But again, it’s not new,” he says. “It’s something that happens all over the West, all over Oregon, all the time. We’re just able to do it here for the first time.”
(This was first reported by OPB News. OPB’s Sergio Cisneros contributed to this report.)