By TIM HEARDEN
The leader of the Klamath Tribes told a U.S. Senate committee June 20 that ranchers facing water shutoffs in the Upper Klamath Basin would have to agree to provisions of a three-year-old basin restoration agreement to negotiate more water from the tribes.
In an exchange with Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., tribal chairman Don Gentry said the federation that includes the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin tribes would honor its water-sharing pact with reclamation-project irrigators that was forged as part of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.
But when Wyden asked him what it would take for upper basin irrigators to negotiate with the tribes over water rights, Gentry said users would need to agree to the KBRA in its present form.
"Decades of failed state and federal policies over-promised water across the basin," Gentry told the committee in opening remarks. "We take no pleasure from the fact that water must be cut off to some of our neighbors to meet the United States' obligations."
The hearing in Washington, D.C., which was streamed live online, came as water rights calls by the tribes and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation earlier this month forced shutoffs to ranches in the upper basin. The calls were made possible by a March ruling by an administrative law judge confirming the tribes have the oldest water rights in the upper basin.
While Wyden promised more meetings to address the Klamath Basin's latest water crisis, much of the testimony in this hearing centered around reviving the KBRA and a companion proposal to remove four dams from the Klamath River.
The authorization of the two agreements has been languishing in Congress since it was introduced in 2011. Wyden said legislators might accept a scaled-back version of the agreements, adding their original $1.1 billion price tag was too expensive in today's political environment.
Becky Hyde, a cattle rancher near Beatty, Ore., told senators her watermaster told her 9-year-old son that water the family has had a right to since 1864 would be shut off.
"The adjudication creates winners and losers, and our family is on the losing end," Hyde said. "I'm disappointed because we saw this crisis coming ... If the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement were in place today, with it would be a reasoned plan for coping with drought."
Roger Nicholson, president of the Resource Conservancy and Fort Klamath Critical Habitat Landowners, said off-project water users in the upper basin were shut out of the KBRA process.
"We want a settlement," Nicholson said. "We desire a settlement. We're in the process of meeting with the tribes and hopefully we can forge ahead and be part of the settlement process. Even though we would not be allowed to be a signatory on the KBRA, perhaps we can move forward with a parallel agreement."
However, much opposition to the KBRA remains in the basin, where voters have supported its opponents in campaigns for local office by as much as 85 percent, said newly elected Klamath County Commissioner Tom Mallams, a Beatty, Ore., hay producer.
"One of the stakeholders has been left out, and that is the citizens as a whole," Mallams testified. "I represent all the citizens of Klamath County. ... There's no doubt we need a settlement, but the current KBRA and current proposal for dam removal does not fit the bill."
Gentry -- who was one of four representatives of area tribes to speak at the hearing -- declined to answer when Wyden asked him if the Klamath Tribes have been negotiating with upper basin water users to develop an agreement similar to one the tribes have with project irrigators.
He said the tribes' 1964 pact with the U.S. government assured them the right to "hunt, fish, trap and gather," and that exercising their water rights to maintain healthy fisheries "is critical to the overall health, social health and well-being of our people."
"What assurances and benefits would the tribe need in order to get an agreement with the off-project users?" Wyden asked.
After a pause, Gentry said, "Well, we would need continued support of the elements of KBRA that we negotiated. Removing the dams is important to us, so we'd need those assurances."
"So in effect you're saying off-project people would just have to support the KBRA in its present form," Wyden said.
"Yes," Gentry answered. "Currently that's what our members voted for, and that's what we and I as a representative of the Klamath Tribes have authority to discuss. The KBRA does have that flexibility."
U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: http://www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/