Clock ticks on Klamath’s agricultural economy

Posted by Renee Magyar on March 3, 2011

Klamath farmer offers a local's perspective on water rights in the Basin


By Gary Wright -- Guest Columnist

Capital Press

March 03, 2011

Last week, Congressman Tom McClintock of California brought his formidable power as chairman of the House Water and Power Subcommittee directly into the politics of Klamath Basin water.

He's ignited some sparks, but he hasn't shared how he plans to get water to farmers, which is something senators will focus on carefully as they now consider the issues.

Ranchers and farmers in the Klamath Basin have become fairly pragmatic when it comes to issues about their future survival. In 2001, 20,000 people took to the streets in Klamath Falls to fight water allocation decisions mandated by the Endangered Species Act. Sen. Gordon Smith came to Klamath at that time, and led a passionate rally with promises of reform. Richard Pombo, a California congressman, took up the battle cry against the ESA, and promptly lost his next election. The painful truth is that ESA reform did not happen under a Republican-controlled House, Senate and president.

Practical folks who make a living in farming and ranching started to look for other paths.

Our elected officials looked at the basin and said, "Sorry, you'll have to figure it out yourselves." So we did.

Various water users with the greatest stake in basin issues came together, however imperfectly, and created a strategy to deal with our own water issues, keep an agricultural economy alive, and deal with contentious issues that range from U.S. treaty obligations to the Endangered Species Act.

It's been painfully bipartisan, at the local, state and federal level. Strange bedfellows -- who really have never had much of a desire to get along -- are in regular and productive communication today.

It turns out, however, that practical solutions rarely fit nicely into partisan packages.

There are those in the basin still waiting for the end of ESA. Many have no real connection to basin agriculture, but they can be relied on to show up for small protests that pale in comparison and fervor to the great rally in Klamath in 2001. People and politicians stood with basin agriculture when we were the victims, but many don't seem interested if we are looking to cooperate with others.

Many now look hopefully to Congress to override endangered fish, tribal trust, the Clean Water Act, and those with other points of view. But these fights will take time -- a long time -- and cost money -- a lot of money -- with no guarantee of outcome. Meanwhile, water issues are not solved and must become more certain if agriculture is to survive.

Klamath Basin agriculture has the potential to contribute $6 billion to the local economy over the next 10 years, and what it needs is a solution. It needs water, energy and regulatory security and an end to seemingly endless litigation. A plan for this has been created over years of negotiations, and signed by the vast majority of irrigation districts in the community.

Apparently, Congressman McClintock has another plan. He will need to engage quickly, because we are again in a water year that depends on biological opinions that do not create security for agriculture.

Perhaps the congressman and his colleagues from California, Oregon and Washington who joined him in opposition to this approach have a solution that they have failed to share.

I would like to say that we are waiting patiently -- but we don't have a lot of time for patience.

Gary Wright is president of Klamath Water Users Association, and a farmer and rancher in Tulelake, Calif.