Klamath Tribes, irrigators ink tentative water-sharing pact

Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry signs a water-sharing agreement in principle with Upper Klamath Basin irrigators on Dec. 2 at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, Ore., as Oregon Natural Resources Policy Director Richard Whitman looks on.

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — After months of talks, irrigators in the Upper Klamath Basin and the Klamath Tribes inked a water-sharing agreement in principle on Dec. 2.

While details remain to be worked out over the coming weeks, the pact includes various restoration projects, stipulated in-stream flows and the permanent retirement of 30,000 acre-feet of water for restoring fisheries, said officials who were involved in talks.

The agreement involved federal and state negotiators and was a result of work by the Klamath Basin Task Force, which was assembled this summer to address the fallout from water rights calls by the tribes and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The task force set up by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Gov. John Kitzhaber had hoped to reach a deal by September, but lingering water and power issues and the October partial shutdown of the federal government slowed the group’s negotiations.

“I’m very pleased that we’ve come to this point,” said Don Gentry, the Klamath Tribes’ chairman. “There is work to be done, but I can say this is a critical positive step in moving forward with negotiating a final settlement.”

Linda Long, a rancher in Modoc Point, Ore., who was involved in some of the talks, said the pact’s elements involve “some give-and-take” on the part of irrigators and the tribes.

“We still have the final agreement to do and a lot of the details will be in the final agreement,” she said. “I think if we can get our water back, it will never be the same but it’ll be hopefully something that everyone can live with. The tribes and the irrigators can work through it together.”

If finalized, the agreement would be parallel to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and its companion proposal to remove four dams from the Klamath River, which has been adamantly opposed by some farmers and ranchers in the region.

“It’s really positive that some of the parties … that weren’t included in the KBRA are now a part of this process,” Gentry said.

Once a final deal is reached, Wyden will propose a bill in Congress to authorize its parameters, Gentry and Long said. Also, federal legislation is needed by February to provide irrigators outside the Klamath Reclamation Project with immediate, lower-cost power from the Bonneville Power Administration, offering some relief from electricity costs that have risen significantly since 2006.

The talks began after the Klamath Tribes and the federal government made calls on their water rights in June, forcing tens of thousands of acres in the drought-stricken Upper Basin to go without surface water irrigation this summer.

The agreement that parties signed at the Oregon Institute of Technology here seek to support the Klamath Tribes’ economic development issues while providing stability for agriculture and restoring and managing riparian corridors along streams that flow into Upper Klamath Lake, the tribes explained in a news release.

Part of supporting the tribes’ economic outlook is to bring fish populations back to harvestable levels, Gentry said.

“An important component for the Klamath Tribes is support for economic development,” he said. “All of this is couched in doing the work necessary to restore our fisheries.”

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