The number of irrigators cited for violations by Oregon water regulators for failing to stop water withdrawals has surged this year in the Klamath Basin.
The Oregon Water Resources Department has issued 19 notices of violation to area irrigators in 2020, compared to five in 2019, one in 2018, seven in 2017 and one in 2016.
The agency has also assessed civil penalties against the Modoc Point Irrigation District, which is the next enforcement step after water diversions or withdrawals continue despite a violation notice.
The spike in violation notices probably wasn’t caused by a rebellion among irrigators, but rather due to OWRD staff growing more familiar with the region’s water distribution system, said Racquel Rancier, the agency’s senior policy coordinator.
Since the basin’s water rights were adjudicated by OWRD in 2013 — which formally established the senior rights of tribes and other irrigators — the agency is better able to recognize unauthorized uses in the area, she said.
Irrigators with senior rights have also developed a greater understanding of the rules during that time, Rancier said. “That in some cases leads to more complaints.”
In the case of Modoc Point Irrigation District, the agency ordered it to cease diverting water in March from the Williamson and Sprague rivers for the rest of the irrigation season.
However, OWRD’s watermaster noticed that water was flowing in the irrigation district’s main supply ditch in late August, prompting the agency to issue a notice of violation.
In early September, the irrigation district asked OWRD to resume irrigating in anticipation of wildfires that had erupted in the region, but the request was denied because an exemption could only be allowed for “emergency firefighting purposes and not fire prevention,” according to the penalty notice.
Several days later, the Klamath Tribes filed a complaint with OWRD about continued water diversions by the Modoc Point Irrigation District, which was confirmed by the agency’s watermaster, the notice said.
As a result, the agency concluded the irrigation district had violated state law and imposed a civil penalty of nearly $3,300, though the order may still be appealed. Capital Press was unable to reach a representative of Modoc Point Irrigation District for comment.
John Moxley, president of the Klamath-Lake County Farm Bureau, said he’d heard of the violation notices and attributed the increased number to heightened vigilance about unauthorized pasture irrigation in the Upper Klamath Basin.
“I just think somebody was turning them in that wasn’t the year before,” Moxley said.
Roger Nicholson, a rancher involved in basin irrigation issues, said he’d complied with an irrigation shut-off notice from the OWRD but had heard about the violation notices received by others.
Though he didn’t discuss the violation notices with them directly, Nicholson said the “bad situation” was likely the result of “true suffering” by irrigators who don’t have enough water to keep pastures viable.
Under the 2013 adjudication, irrigators in the Upper Klamath Basin have been deprived of about 100,000 acre-feet of irrigation water a year, Nicholson said. “People will lose their ranches and multiple generations of investment, and there’s no care for that by the State of Oregon.”
Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said the surge in violation notices “is a result of enforcement.”
“There have been violations going on for quite some time,” he said.
The Klamath Tribes have been recognized as the most senior “time immemorial” water rights holders in the region and have requested shut-offs to preserve water for ecological reasons — even though some tribal members are also adversely affected, Gentry said.
“We have a right to keep water in-stream for fish and wildlife and all these resources,” he said.
The current situation springs from Oregon historically allowing more people to claim water rights than the actual water supply could support, Gentry said.
“Because it’s been unregulated, people have developed irrigation and come to rely on and expect it,” he said. “Unfortunately, it seems to pit the tribes against irrigated agriculture.”