Though the pomp and circumstance is over, the story is not over for the Klamath Basin water problems. Though agreements have been made and documents signed, the next hurdle is a large one.
Friday, April 18, saw the signing of the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement (Agreement) by Klamath tribal leaders, local politicians, and representatives from the agricultural interests. This moves the historic decision on a years-long water war to the next level: Congress.
The Agreement was signed on the banks of the Klamath River by a variety of stakeholders. The version signed was the same one passed in early March—covered in the March 17 issue of WLJ—according to a representative of the Oregon state government and Andrea Rabe, Landowner Outreach Project Manager with Water for Life, rancher and professional wetlands scientist. Though the then-proposal was open to amendments, none occurred.
The list of participants at the signing ceremony was a long one. Among those who signed the Agreement were Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, Chairman of the Klamath Tribes Don Gentry, numerous individual landowners and representatives from irrigator groups, including the Sprague River Water Resource Foundation and the Upper Klamath Water Users Association.
Others attended the event, including Sally Jewel, Secretary of the Interior, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and California Resources Secretary John Laird.
“This historic agreement saves water, protects habitat, and provides certainty for the basin,” said Wyden in his official announcement of the signing. “This could only have happened through the hard work and dedication of the task force I created along with Senator Merkley, Congressman [Greg] Walden [R-OR2], and Governor Kitzhaber. Now it is time for Congress to get work and build on what has already been done.”
According to both the Klamath Tribes and Wyden, the Agreement, along with the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, will be transformed into a “legislative package” and presented to Congress. Though no specific dates were offered, Wyden’s Washington D.C. office told WLJ the collective Klamath Basin agreements would be submitted to Congress sometime this week or next as the Senate returns from a two-week recess.
The bill(s) resulting from the collective Klamath Basin agreements face an uncertain future. In the Democrat-controlled Senate, the Senate version could be well received coming from a Democrat senator, but what might happen in the Republican-controlled House is another matter. The support of Republican representatives may help that issue.
In other situations where a senator and a representative work together on an issue it is common for the two to submit duplicate bills to their respective branches of Congress. A communications representative from Walden’s Washington D.C. office said the representative looks forward to reviewing Wyden’s bill, but did not comment further on the possibility of a House bill.
The Agreement sets goals for water usage in the area with the biggest ag-relevant detail being a 30,000 acre-feet increase in inflow streams. This increase will be achieved by voluntary use reduction and some water use retirement from irrigators. Though the use of “voluntary” is an odd one given the setting, the agreement makes the best of a bad situation.
According to the Agreement, the tribes—which have “rights immemorial” to surface water in the area— will not call their full adjudicated water rights provided inflow stream volumes are met through the voluntary agriculture action. If the tribes were to call their full water rights, there would effectively be no water left for ranchers and irrigators in the area.
The Agreement takes availability changes into account with the application of the inflow stream volumes. It shares water usage in the Upper Klamath Basin in such a way that, in wet years, both tribal water rights claimants and irrigators get the water they need, and in dry years, they all use less in pursuit of common goals. While it has been characterized in the past by Rabe as not what farmers and ranchers would have wanted, it includes a framework for meeting the needs of all involved.
“At the end of the day it comes back to the concept of we have to look at what we need, not what we want. Clearly it’s not what we want because some lands will have to be retired from irrigation,” Rabe told WLJ in March. But the upside is a practical one. “[The Agreement] allows the majority of landowners to receive some if not all of the allocation they need to operate their ranch.”
At the signing, Garrett Roseberry, President of the Sprague River Water Resources Group, said, “After decades of legal battles, the Klamath Tribes and the Upper Basin irrigation committees, with the support of Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Representative Greg Walden, and Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, have crafted an agreement that will create economic security and resource stability for the Klamath tribes and the Upper Basin community.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor