GRANTS PASS, Ore. — During past droughts, ranchers in the upper Klamath Basin could keep irrigating until the rivers ran dry. This year, the rules have changed.
The Klamath Tribes have been formally recognized by the state as having the oldest water rights in the region and they are demanding they be enforced on behalf of endangered fish that the tribes hold sacred.
Watermasters on Wednesday started going ranch to ranch along the Sprague River and its tributaries notifying them they had to stop irrigating, because their water rights were junior to the tribes’ rights, said Douglas Woodcock, field services administrator for the state Water Resources Department. And under time-honored water law, first in time is first in right.
Becky and Taylor Hyde’s 9-year-old son greeted the watermaster when he came up the drive on their Yainix Ranch, a Klamath word meaning the edge between mountain and valley. The watermaster left his card, and when Becky Hyde called, he said it was time to turn off their irrigation, despite water rights dating to 1864.
“I think we’re going to get through it, but we sure didn’t sleep last night,” Mrs. 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 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.
“I think it will be a month and a half to two months from now when things really start to fall apart,” she said.
Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, acknowledged that the shutoffs were painful for irrigators, which include some tribal members. “But we have to protect our resources and really make sure our water rights are enforced.”
Woodcock said it was not yet clear whether all the irrigators drawing from the Sprague have to be shut off. It will take the next week and a half to make all the notifications. Shutoffs on the Wood and Williamson rivers are to follow.
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 salmon died downstream in the Klamath River.
The 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. Until now, ranchers have been able to irrigate freely, no matter how much water is in the river. The tribes lost the reservation in the 1950s.
The tribes issued what is known as a call on the water on Tuesday to be sure enough water remains in rivers to support native fish, including two endangered species of suckers sacred to the tribes. Even some tribal members holding water rights dating to 1864 will face shutoffs, Gentry said.
Ranchers have said the shutoffs will be devastating, forcing them to find feed for more than 70,000 cattle grazed on some 180,000 acres of irrigated pasture. Feed is already in short supply across the drought-stricken West.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also issued a call for water to supply the Klamath Project. Many of the marshes used by waterfowl on the Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuges were dry, because they rely on leftover water from the irrigation project, and have a junior water right.
The shutoffs come amid bitter political battles over an agreement by PacifiCorp to remove four dams on the Klamath River to allow salmon to reach the upper basin for the first time in a century. A companion agreement calls for nearly $1 billion in environmental restoration for the basin and offers measures for easing irrigation shutoffs. Ranchers in the upper basin are divided over support for the two agreements. Ratification of the two agreements has been stalled in Congress amid objections by conservatives in the House.