GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Gov. John Kitzhaber and representatives of the Obama administration have signed a breakthrough agreement for sharing scarce water in the Upper Klamath Basin, where irrigation was shut off to ranchers last summer after the Klamath Tribes exercised newly awarded water rights to protect fish.
The governor and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael L. Conner signed the agreement in principal Wednesday in Klamath Falls. They joined ranchers and the Klamath Tribes in endorsing key elements of future legislation to reduce the likelihood of shutting off irrigation to protect fish.
The deal was put together by a task force named last June by Sen. Ron Wyden and others.
Wyden issued a statement praising task force members for giving up their individual interests in the name of a greater good, adding the deal would serve as the foundation for legislation to come before his Energy and Natural Resources Committee early next year.
“We now we have a game plan for economic development, agricultural prosperity, and environmental restoration throughout the basin,” said Wyden.
Under the tentative deal, ranchers on the Wood, Williamson and Sprague rivers would agree to significantly cut water use to help provide irrigation for farmers on the Klamath Restoration Project downstream, and support fish habitat restoration projects and tribal economic projects. The tribes would agree not to cut off irrigation if ranchers significantly reduce irrigation withdrawals. The deal supports low-cost federally generated electricity for ranchers.
It would join with two existing agreements that have stalled in the Republican-controlled U.S. House. One would remove four dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California to help struggling salmon runs, and the other woulds restore a century of environmental damage from agricultural development and provide higher assurances that farmers on a federal irrigation project will not lose irrigation to protect salmon and sucker fish in times of drought.
Those deals have been y opposed by local county officials and some House Republicans.
The task force still has to reach a final agreement, which is expected next month.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Kitzhaber and Conner all pledged to work to make the deal reality.
“This is a momentous day because it shows that Oregon’s reputation as a place where people find solutions to tough problems is well-earned,” Kitzhaber said in a statement. His natural resources adviser, Richard Whitman oversaw negotiations.
Conner said the Obama administration looked forward to working with the interest groups to implement all three agreements.
“We cannot take care of ourselves if we fail to also take care of our neighbors, and this agreement in principle helps pave the way for long-term solutions rooted in collaboration,” he said in a statement.