Conflicts and Crises
Detroit Lake during a drought
Introduction
The Natural Flow
Water Pressures
A Changing Climate
A Changing Climate
The Klamath Basin conflict illustrates the deep social rifts that can develop when promises are broken and priorities shift. But conflict is not an automatic outcome of water shortages.
In one part of eastern Oregon, many different stakeholders have spent two decades working to resolve their differences. They have negotiated solutions that could serve as patterns for settling other water crises in Oregon. In addition, they have proved that it is possible to change our expectations of conflict and create a new climate of cooperation.
The Umatilla Basin Project
In some respects the experience in Umatilla mirrors the Klamath Basin situation. The primary contenders were the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the region's irrigation districts. And once again, irrigation was taking too much water from fish.
But over a period of 20 years, the participants in this dispute reached a successful, negotiated water agreement.
As in the Klamath Basin, this conflict began with a Bureau of Reclamation irrigation construction program in the early part of the 20th century. A strong irrigation-based economy developed, but salmon runs were driven into extinction. Irrigation was emptying the Umatilla River several months out of the year, and dams were blocking fish passage. Tribal water rights were being ignored.
In the 1970's, the conflict between the Umatilla's Tribes and irrigators became heated. As Senator Mark O. Hatfield remembered it, "I traveled to Pendleton, Oregon, to hold a hearing on longstanding water disputes in the Umatilla River Basin. These disputes were somewhat typical of other water conflicts throughout the western United States, in that, I was lucky to get out of that hearing room alive." Nevertheless, it was the start of a process of public dialogue that eventually generated positive results.
Eventually, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the regional irrigation districts recognized that the core problem was not of their own creation. The federal government, in promising the same water to irrigators when it also had a Treaty responsibility to protect that water for the Tribes, had pitted the Tribes and irrigators against one another. Instead of devoting time and resources to fighting one another, the Tribes and irrigators decided to focus on finding middle ground.
The eventual solution was developed by the Tribes, the irrigators, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Oregon Water Resources Department and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Senator Hatfield also played an important role in helping the parties negotiate this solution, and in 1988, he introduced legislation to authorize the Umatilla Basin Project.
The Project is based on a water exchange that delivers Columbia River water to participating irrigation districts. In exchange, irrigators agree to leave water in the Umatilla when fish need it most. In addition, a large portion of water stored in McKay Reservoir is reserved for instream augmentation. The Columbia is not affected, because water is eventually returned back to the Columbia via the Umatilla River.
The exchange includes three of the five major irrigation districts in the Umatilla Basin. The Tribes and participating irrigators have been working with Congress to include the region's two remaining irrigation districts.
While the water transfer does not increase river flows year-round, it does increase instream flows during critical salmon migration periods in the spring and fall.
Among the changes included in the Project, fish ladders have been improved or installed at five dams along the Umatilla. Spring Chinook, fall Chinook and Coho salmon have been reintroduced using hatchery stocks. The remnant steelhead run has been augmented using hatchery techniques. Salmon and steelhead are beginning to return in healthy numbers to the Umatilla River.
Other efforts will extend the benefits of the Project. For example, the Umatilla Tribes and the city of Pendleton are developing a Joint Water Supply Project to give the city a secure water supply for the present and the future, while also addressing the Tribes' on-reservation water needs.
The Tribes and the Oregon Water Resources Department have been working with local interests and other agencies to develop a Comprehensive Water Management Plan for the region. The goal is to use the Umatilla Basin Project and other water management strategies to meet the Tribes' water needs, both for instream flows and for on-reservation consumptive use, without impacting other water users.
The Tribes, irrigators, local businesses, and several state and federal agencies are also exploring joint watershed restoration projects to solve water quality issues.
The Umatilla Basin Project can serve as a model for resolving water conflicts peacefully and relatively inexpensively. Instead of years of protracted and divisive litigation, the Umatilla Basin approach has rechanneled the efforts and resources of stakeholders toward the creation of the solution.
In 1996, Senator Hatfield introduced the Umatilla Basin Project Completion Act with a valuable observation, "In the Yakima River Basin, for example, the Federal Government and irrigators spent nearly 20 years and $50 million just adjudicating the tribe's treaty fishery rights. During that time, the Yakima River salmon runs continued to decline, and Congress passed legislation authorizing another $150,000 to restore the Yakima River fishery. Unfortunately, similar sad tales reverberate throughout the Pacific Northwest. Our experience in the Umatilla Basin, to date, has been more positive and successful."