Ranchers ask judge to stop Oregon from shutting off irrigation

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GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Some of the ranchers facing irrigation shutoffs in the upper Klamath Basin are asking a judge to stop state officials from enforcing newly recognized water rights held by the Klamath Tribes.

Klamath County Circuit Judge Cameron Wogan has scheduled hearings Friday in Klamath Falls.

State watermasters started telling ranchers Wednesday that they had to stop irrigating in order to be sure enough water remains in the Sprague, Williamson and Wood rivers to meet senior water rights held by the tribes, which are using them to protect endangered fish.

The Klamath Basin has been the site of some of the most bitter water battles in the nation as scarce water is shared between protected fish and farms. In 2001, angry farmers confronted federal marshals called in to guard headgates shutting off water to the Klamath Reclamation Project, a federal irrigation project straddling the Oregon-California border, to protect fish. The next year, water was restored to farms, but tens of thousands of adult salmon died downstream in the Klamath River.

The current shutoffs are the first for the upper Klamath Basin, where 38 years of litigation ended in March with recognition by the state Water Resources Department that the tribes have the oldest water rights on rivers flowing through lands that were once their reservation, dating to time immemorial.

The group of ranchers has been appealing the legal process that recognized the tribes’ water rights.

The state is opposing the motions to stop the shutoffs, said Jeff Manning, spokesman for the state attorney general.

During past droughts, ranchers in the upper Klamath Basin could keep irrigating until the rivers ran dry. This year, the rules have changed.

River levels are so low from drought, and the in-stream water rights of the tribes so large, that watermasters are having to shut off a lot of other water rights to meet them, said Douglas Woodcock, field services administrator for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has also exercised 1905 water rights to supply its irrigation project downstream. Despite making a call on water rights dating to 1905 and 1925, national wildlife refuges downstream of the irrigation project were far short of water to fill marshes for migrating waterfowl.

On the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1908 as the nation’s first refuge for waterfowl, only 1,000 acres of marsh had water in an area with a potential for 31,000 acres, manager Ron Cole said. The entire refuge would be dry by the end of the month, the earliest it has gone dry in 70 years, forcing tens of thousands of waterfowl to find someplace else to live. Outbreaks of avian botulism were expected as birds crowd together in smaller areas.

Taylor and Becky Hyde have water rights dating to 1864, but that didn’t save them from having to shut down irrigation to meet the demands of senior rights being exercised by the Klamath Tribes to protect fish.

“I think we’re going to get through it, but we sure didn’t sleep last night,” Becky Hyde said Thursday. “If you were to come out here today, you are not going to see the drying out for a few weeks. It looks green and nice right now. We are surrounded by neighbors who have wells who are all going to still be irrigating.”

They have shipped some cattle off to ranches of family members, and the remaining cattle will have about six weeks of grass before it dries up. There will still be water to drink.

Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, acknowledged that the shutoffs were painful for irrigators, which include some tribal members. But said the tribes have to protect their resources and make sure their water rights are enforced.

Mrs. Hyde, other ranchers, state, federal and local officials, and representatives of conservation groups will appear before a hearing next week in Washington, D.C., called by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

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