SALEM — Irrigators in Oregon’s Klamath Basin are seeking more flexibility in how they manage water due to concerns of looming drought in the region.

However, legislation that would allow Klamath irrigators to transfer or lease water rights has met with suspicion from opponents of a controversial dam removal project.

Currently, water transfers and leases aren’t permitted in the Klamath Basin because the ownership of water rights in the region is still being legally adjudicated.

Senate Bills 206 and 264 would permit such transfers for water rights that have already been quantified and allow state regulators to participate in a “joint management entity” with irrigators in the upper Klamath Basin as part of a legal settlement.

“We want to have the same flexibility that other landowners in the state do,” said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, during a March 23 legislative hearing.

Klamath Basin irrigators must already leave water in-stream for federally protected fish, but allowing them to technically lease that water would avoid the risk of forfeiting water rights, he said.

“This is putting the basin on equal footing with the rest of the state,” said Richard Whitman, natural resources advisor to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

While the bills refer to two legal settlements between irrigators, tribes and conservationists, the legislation in “no way” represents a codification or ratification of those agreements, Whitman said.

Opponents of those broader Klamath deals — which allocate water use and require the removal of four hydroelectric dams, among other provisions — claim that SB 206 and SB 264 are necessary for the legal settlements to proceed.

“They are integral parts and pieces of them,” said Tom Mallams, a Klamath County commissioner and opponent of dam removal, during the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources hearing.

Proponents claim removing four dams from the Klamath River would restore water quality and hyrdrological function, but critics say it would release toxic sediments and reduce property tax revenues for counties.

Farmers who rely on the Klamath Irrigation Project and those who are upstream of it have signed two separate water use deals with tribes, which hold “time immemmorial” water rights in the region.

However, those deals still hinge on dam removal and federal funding for environmental restoration efforts.

Mallams said that local residents continue to oppose dam removal and claimed that farmers have signed onto the broader settlements under duress as they fear losing the ability to irrigate.

“They have a loaded gun to their head,” he said.

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