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Some lose all in water war

Published on December 31, 1969 3:01AM

Last changed on September 9, 2013 7:06AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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Nearly 300 farm and ranch families are the latest casualties in a long series of bitter water disputes in the Klamath River Basin.

No fundraisers will be held for the 300 in the fashionable salons of Manhattan. No one will rise in Congress to note their passing. No celebrity will press their appeal.

So we raise our feeble voice to recognize their plight.

The waters of the Klamath and its tributaries support a vast network of oftentimes competing interests over nearly 16,000 square miles in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

When winter snow and spring rains are heavy, there's enough water for everyone. In dry years, like this one, things are tight. That's when competing interests come in conflict.

Last March, after 38 years of court battles, the state of Oregon recognized the Klamath Tribes as holding the oldest water rights in the region. Last month the tribes exercised that right, claiming their share to support endangered fish.

At the same time, the Bureau of Reclamation made a call on its rights to supply irrigators on the Klamath Project, as did the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which depends on project water to feed wildlife refuges.

As a result, non-project irrigators on tributaries above Upper Klamath Lake have been shut off. Some 300 cattle ranchers and hay growers there face a summer of little or no water. A lack of water will force them to sell underweight cattle or reduce hay production through the dry summer.

The tribes say they made their call to protect their rights, and the endangered fish they say are sacred to their people. The BLM needs water to service the on-project irrigators, while the Fish and Wildlife Service must maintain the basin's remaining wetlands habitat.

They are within their rights. It's their water to do with as they see fit. It is not our purpose to judge the legitimate needs of one user over another.

In the drought conditions that prevail in the Klamath Basin, water is a zero sum game. Some get water, others get none.

So we cannot help but think of the 300 families who face an uncertain future. They may limp through this year on substantially reduced incomes. Unless there is generous snow and rain, the desperate cycle will begin again next spring. How long can they hold out?

These industrious men and women, raised on hard work and used to making their own way, face financial ruin. As their fortunes fall, so will fall the fortunes of their communities, the businesses they patronize, and the charities they support.

Many will join the diaspora of the economically displaced, forced from their homes to rebuild their lives in unfamiliar places.

It appears a solution that serves at least part of everyone's needs still eludes the Klamath factions. Too bad. While the 300 bear the immediate cost, the resulting changes will be felt in time by the victors.


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