Conflicts and Crises
Drilling a new groundwater well
The Natural Flow
Water Pressures
A Changing Climate
Water Pressures
Irrigators and fish, environmentalists and developers, pioneers and newcomers. Everyone has an interest in Oregon's water, but none of these groups are preordained enemies. True, Oregon is experiencing an increasing number of conflicts related to water use, but there is also hope for new approaches to conflict resolution. In this section, a high-profile conflict in the Klamath Basin is explored. This is followed by a look at some of the potential options for resolving Oregon's water problems.
The Klamath Basin Conflict
The roots of this conflict date back to the early years of statehood. In 1864, the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin Tribes signed a treaty with the federal government guaranteeing perpetual hunting and fishing rights along Upper Klamath Lake.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Congress authorized construction of the Klamath Project, one of the Reclamation Bureau's first irrigation projects in the West. The project was designed to store and channel spring runoff in order to stimulate regional farming.
A year after the Klamath Project headgates opened, President Theodore Roosevelt created the nation's first waterfowl refuge on Lower Klamath Lake.
And finally, in the 1930s and 1940s, the federal government gave Klamath Basin land to homesteaders and war veterans with the promise that there would be plenty of irrigation water.
In less than 80 years, the federal government had made water promises to four different groups, and all had a reasonable claim to the water. That's when the first troubles began...
In 1954 Congress terminated federal recognition of the Klamath Tribes and converted the reservation land into a national forest. The landscape was partly farmland, and partly refuge and forest. Three years later, the Klamath Project was completed, including hundreds of miles of irrigation canals and ditches. In that same year, Oregon, California and Congress ratified the Klamath River Basin Compact to settle water disputes. That compact gave top priority to irrigation.
From 1957 to 1973, the disputes seemed resolved. Then Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 1986, 13 years after the ESA passed, the Klamath Tribes regained sovereign status and federal recognition. The Tribes quickly began urging greater protection of Upper Klamath Lake resources, two species of suckerfish and downstream Coho salmon. The fish were clearly in trouble, and in 1988 both the Lost River sucker and short-nosed sucker were listed as endangered species.
Still, water conflicts remained fairly low-key until 1992, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set a minimum water level in Upper Klamath Lake to maintain water quality for the suckers. Unfortunately, Upper Klamath Lake is also the area's primary irrigation reservoir. More droughts followed in 1994, 2000, 2001 and 2002.
A flashpoint came in 2001 when the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) shut off Klamath Project irrigation water to 1,400 farms, encompassing 90 percent of the Basin's farmland. Water was also cut off to the Basin's national wildlife refuges, a key migratory stopover for bald eagles.
A federal court denied a request to restore irrigation, saying the need to protect imperiled fish outweighed the economic needs of farmers. The federal government then offered farmers low-interest loans and other emergency aid. Many farmers sold their lands to the American Land Conservancy, which planned to restore farmlands to marshland status.
The most recent twist in this tale occurred in early 2002, when the BOR released a draft biological assessment that would return irrigation water to farmers. Environmental groups quickly criticized the assessment, charging that the study was based on flawed science.
Outlook: The Klamath Basin conflict still has not been resolved. None of the aggrieved parties — Tribes, farmers, fish, environmentalists, wildlife and government agencies — is winning in this battle. A series of court cases have determined that (for the present) Klamath Basin water will be allocated as follows: first to meet the needs of endangered species, second for Native American tribes and the wildlife they depend on, third for farmers in the Klamath Project and fourth for wildlife refuges that depend on farm runoff for much of their water.
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