For the most part, upper Klamath Basin ranchers Becky Hyde and Roger Nicholson have been on opposite sides of debates over the proposed removal of four dams from the Klamath River and related fisheries restoration efforts.
Hyde was involved in crafting the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and related pacts and has been a vocal supporter. As late as last summer, Nicholson was inclined to let disaffected landowners try their hand in court.
But the two sat next to each other in a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on June 3, both urging Congress to pass a bill authorizing the package of water-sharing agreements.
“This settlement represents common people — ranchers, tribal members, government workers, conservationists, philanthropists, scientists,” said Hyde, whose family runs cattle in Beatty, Ore. “This settlement deserves to be cherished.”
Nicholson, a rancher from Fort Klamath, Ore., said he thinks the proposed fixes for the perennially water-starved region will bring some stability for ranchers.
“We look forward to having a whole community again, and that’s very, very important to me,” he said.
The remarks by Hyde and Nicholson came amid a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s panel on water and power, which was held in Washington, D.C., and streamed online. The hearing was chaired by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who with Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., recently introduced legislation that would put the agreements into law.
The bill – Senate Resolution 2379 – came about a month after Hyde, Nicholson and other members of a task force stood at the banks of Spring Creek in Klamath County to ink the latest in the series of agreements — an Upper Basin water-sharing pact with the Klamath Tribes.
Tribal chairman Don Gentry choked back tears as he told senators how a now-deceased elder taught him about values and traditions when he brought her fish for ceremonies as a boy.
“I believe it is through her prayers and the prayers of our ancestors that we are here today at this critical point for the future of our people and the people of the Klamath Basin,” Gentry said.
The task force was convened by the Oregon senators and Gov. John Kitzhaber last summer after water calls by the tribes and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation forced tens of thousands of acres in the drought-stricken Upper Basin to go without surface water irrigation.
As part of the pact, ranchers agreed to let another 30,000 acre-feet annually flow into Upper Klamath Lake to aid fish. The task force also slashed the cost of the overall package to about $545 million, down from an original estimate of $1.1 billion.
To be certain, plenty of opposition remains. Recently, the three Klamath County commissioners and four of the five Siskiyou County supervisors signed a joint letter of opposition to one of the bill’s cosponsors, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and to Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who authored amendments in 2011 to strip $1.9 million for dam-removal studies from a stopgap spending measure.
In their letter, the county officials said most of their constituents are still opposed to the dam-removal project. The only official not to sign was Siskiyou County Supervisor Ed Valenzuela, who could not immediately be reached for comment.
“It’s never going to pass overall,” Klamath County Commissioner Tom Mallams said in an interview. “I want a settlement, but it should be a settlement that’s going to pass and that the citizens will embrace. With dam removal in there, they’re never going to accept it.”
However, Richard Whitman, Oregon’s natural resources officer, asserts the agreements have already provided stability for Klamath Irrigation Project and off-project irrigators by keeping water flowing to farms even amid historic drought conditions in the West.
“It’s this kind of sharing the shortage that will help us work through what is likely to be a very dry summer – a marked difference to 2001,” when project irrigators faced a water shut-off, Whitman told the Capital Press in an email.
“We appreciate the ongoing concerns of Klamath and Siskiyou counties,” he said, “and we will continue to work to address them along with all of the other members of the broad partnership now on board with these agreements.”
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee:
</URL>Upper Basin Comprehensive Agreement: http://www.oregon.gov/gov/GNRO/Pages/Final-Upper-Klamath-Basin-Comprehensive-Agreement.aspx