Lawsuits challenge water rights decisions in Klamath, Boardman

SALEM — The Oregon Water Resources Department is facing two new lawsuits related to water rights, one from Klamath-area irrigators and the other from environmental groups opposed to a new dairy in the eastern part of the state.

Several irrigators are challenging the agency’s order shutting down irrigation from Wood River and its tributaries in the Upper Klamath Basin due to a water call from the Klamath Tribes in April.

The tribes have “time immemorial” water rights under an OWRD determination, giving them priority over the irrigators, whose oldest water rights date back to 1864.

OWRD determined that flows in the Wood River have fallen below the tribes’ in-stream water right of 323 cubic feet per second, which is intended to preserve fish and riparian health.

However, the irrigators’ lawsuit claims that OWRD’s water flow gauge is inaccurate or incapable of measuring the full amount of water in the Wood River.

Other measurements of the river have gauged flows of 427 to 502 cubic feet per second, but OWRD’s local watermaster has refused to recognize these reports, according to the petition for judicial review.

The irrigators have asked Marion County Circuit Court Judge Courtland Geyer to overturn OWRD’s final order prohibiting water diversion and to issue an injunction against enforcement of future water calls until proper measurements are taken.

Aside from the Wood River, other water calls in the Upper Klamath Basin were also validated by OWRD for the Williamson and Sprague rivers. Irrigators in the region estimate the orders have affected roughly 300,000 acres.

The other case filed against OWRD concerns the agency’s decision to allow a planned dairy near Boardman, Ore., to withdraw more than 400 gallons per minute from a groundwater aquifer.

In April, the agency issued the Lost Valley Dairy a “limited license,” which allows water withdrawal for up to five years while owner Greg te Velde secures a more permanent source of drinking water for his cattle.

Columbia Riverkeeper, Center for Food Safety, Humane Oregon and Waterwatch of Oregon argue the limited license is unlawfully detrimental to the public interest due to alleged water and air pollution from the dairy.

They also claim OWRD’s conclusion that groundwater is available and withdrawals won’t affect senior water rights aren’t supported by substantial evidence.

The environmentalists’ petition for judicial review asks Marion County Circuit Court Judge Sean Armstrong to reverse or modify the agency’s order.

A spokeswoman for OWRD said the agency is reviewing the lawsuits with its attorneys at the Oregon Department of Justice.

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