Klamath’s hard-won agreement will help Wyden get the job done in Congress: Editorial

Posted by Renee Magyar on December 6, 2013

by The Oregonian Editorial Board

The Sprague River. Credit: US Geological Survey

December 06, 2013

The Klamath Basin has become a culturally, agriculturally and economically essential part of Oregon. It simply needs rational, shared limits on use.

As if things couldn't get testier in the parched Klamath Basin, this year the Klamath Tribes exercised their newly conferred rights to water flowing through lands once a part of their reservation. The action blocked irrigation to hundreds of ranchers, who lost at least tens of millions of dollars in the value of their herds and land. The only good to rise from the ensuing rancor was the emergency formation, in June, of a task force comprising tribal members and ranchers who would hammer out a way forward. Against the expectation of those weary of Klamath's enduring water wars, it did just that last week - and that is a very, very good thing.

Nothing's set in stone yet. But the task force shook hands on accommodations that will allow Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden to introduce legislation next year to break a congressional deadlock over how to best manage the Klamath so that both agriculture and tribes can coexist in an area that, in part owing to government's historical zeal to settle the Klamath, doesn't have enough water to go around.

Key among the new provisions is the reduction, by up to 20 percent, of water drawn by ranchers for irrigation from the Wood, Sprague and Williamson rivers - this with downstream benefits to farmers in the federally sanctioned Klamath Restoration Project but also to tribes concerned about the health of native fish to which they have rights. The tribes, in turn, would agree not to cut off ranchers if irrigation withdrawals are reduced and if ranchers fulfill their promise to conduct, mainly at government expense, riverside land repairs designed to improve water quality. Boosted efficiencies from, say, the curtailment of irrigation by field-flooding are to be taken down the line. Meanwhile, the tribes would be supported in their effort to buy back, with yet-to-be-won federal money, private timberlands situated on what was once reservation land.

The tentative deal applies only to the Upper Klamath Basin. But it cuts to the beating heart of the entire Klamath Basin, a vast landform straddling the Oregon-California border and plumbed for use beyond its capacities. Wyden, instrumental in launching the task force, had walked a fine line in June in telling folks that everybody could, if they tried hard enough, get what they needed as long as they knew they wouldn't get everything they wanted. With such a directive met this week, the tentative Upper Klamath deal now serves as the missing piece for the adoption, by Congress, of a far more comprehensive land management plan called the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which, among other things, calls for the removal of four dams to aid protected salmon but which had run aground among House Republicans.

Reasonable people could argue the enduring Klamath problem - not enough water, pitting tribes against farmers - was created long ago by government-enticed settlers whose successor generations ignored evidence the land, with watersheds spanning temperate rainforest and alpine climates, could not in drought years support full-on potato farming and cattle ranching. No matter. The Klamath Basin has become a culturally, agriculturally and economically essential part of Oregon and northern California. It simply needs rational, shared limits on use, and the KBRA, logjammed in Congress, needs to be passed. Last week's agreement should help Wyden to get the job done in 2014.

Richard Whitman, natural resources advisor to Gov. John Kitzhaber, had the thankless task over the last six months of keeping people at the table and asking them to give things up. He is to be congratulated for successfully moving things forward in an even-tempered manner. But the participants, most of all, have showed fearlessness and uncommon maturity in the face of requests they serve a greater common good by giving up a piece of the life they've long known.

Imagine that. It's called first-class collaboration, Oregon-style. It's the kind of collaboration, too, that could and should make a difference in a Congress that can learn by the Klamath example. Wyden, long an advocate for ground-up solutions in the Klamath, is now well-positioned to help his colleagues find such high ground.

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