Oregon Water Resources Dept devastating Klamath Basin economy, families

Gail Whitsett

Rep. Gail Whitsett (R-Klamath Falls)

A combination of actions taken by the Oregon Water Resources Department has resulted in denying irrigation water to much of the ranching and farming community in the Upper Klamath River Basin.

Make no mistake, the severity of the current meteorological drought would make meeting all Upper Basin irrigation needs difficult at best.

The farming and ranching communities have faced drought before but have always been able to work together to grow enough livestock and crops to survive until precipitation returned.

A series of actions taken, and not taken, by the Oregon Water Resources Department has completely changed the playing field. Those Department decisions will result in denial of all irrigation water delivery for a large segment of the farming and ranching community and significantly curtailed water deliveries to virtually all agricultural interests in the Upper Klamath River Basin.

First, the Department’s final determination in the Klamath River Adjudication was inexplicably contradictory. To begin with, they rightfully agreed with previous Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rulings and determined the Klamath Tribes own the highest priority water right dated time immemorial. But they then incomprehensibly totally ignored the rest of that Ninth Circuit Court decision.

That further Ninth Circuit ruling limited the amount of Tribal water to the amount of water that was being used for a moderate living standard by the Tribes at the time the reservation was sold to the federal government.

In complete contradiction to that ruling, the Department determined that the Tribes were entitled to virtually all of the water in most of the tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake for the purpose of hunting, fishing and gathering, thus overturning the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling.

The Department has failed to challenge the federal  Biological Opinions that has reallocated most of the water stored in Upper Klamath Lake to allegedly endangered species.

That reallocation has been carried out for years without a water right.

The Department has failed to challenge the state of California’s long standing practice of mining water from Oregon aquifers.

They deny Oregon irrigators access to groundwater while allowing their neighbors across the state line to pump water out from under Oregon land.

Moreover, they have delayed issuing many certificates for irrigation wells for at least the past four years.

Meanwhile, the Department participated in a groundwater study that determined that the regional aquifer discharges in part into the Scenic Klamath River.

Using the result of that study, the Department now plans to deny those delayed certificates and all new groundwater appropriations allegedly because they might reduce flows in that allegedly scenic river.

Further, the Department has made clear that they may revoke the certificates of many existing irrigation wells for the same specious reasons.

Look who is supporting the Oregon Water Resources Department. You will not find agricultural, forestry, or natural resources economic entities supporting the Department’s budget. The groups include:

  • 1000 Friends of Oregon
  • American Rivers
  • Audobon Society
  • Beyond Toxics
  • Center for Biological Diversity
  • Climate Solutions
  • Defenders of Wildlife
  • Environment Oregon
  • National Wildlife Federation
  • Oregon Environmental Council
  • Oregon League of Conservation Voters
  • Oregon Wild
  • Rogue Riverkeepers
  • Sierra Club Oregon Chapter
  • Trout Unlimited
  • Tualatin Riverkeepers
  • WaterWatch of Oregon
  • Wild Salmon Center
  • Willamette Riverkeepers

From their series of actions and inactions in the Upper Klamath River Basin, I can only conclude that the Oregon Water Resources Department no longer represents the interests of Oregon’s irrigated agriculture.

The Klamath County Assessor and various economic consultants estimate an economic loss of $500 MILLION dollars to the area in just this year alone from this water cut off. Can you imagine if the area near you sustained economic damages and loss of $500 Million in the next few months and then that much for the foreseeable future, year after year? Certainly Klamath County and the state of Oregon cannot withstand economic devastation of this magnitude, yet it is happening right now. To further complicate this issue, it is our own Oregon Water Resources Department that ordered the administrative ruling that appears to overturn the Ninth Circuit Court’s judicial ruling. It will be years before judicial branch challenges to this agency’s decision can work their way through the federal court system.

It will be far too late for the farms and ranches, the families, the livestock and crops of the Klamath Basin by then. An estimated 100,000 head of cattle in the upper basin will need to be liquidated or removed this summer from the area. Cattle and dairy combined have ranked as Oregon’s second largest agricultural commodity. Klamath County ranks among the largest cattle producers in Oregon. Klamath County is a major contributor overall to Oregon’s healthy and massive agricultural sector and this administrative ruling will undoubtedly be felt throughout Oregon and our economy. We as a state cannot afford to be at the mercy of an agency with its own agenda.