KLAMATH FALLS — For decades this rural basin has battled over the Klamath River's most precious resource: water that sustains fish, irrigates farms and powers the hydroelectric dams that block one of the largest salmon runs on the West Coast.
Now, one of the nation's fiercest water wars is on the verge of erupting again.
New water rights have given a group of Oregon Indian tribes an upper hand just as the region plunges into a severe drought.
Farmers and wildlife refuges could be soon cut off by the Klamath Tribes, which in March were granted the Upper Klamath Basin's oldest water rights to the lake and tributaries that feed the mighty river flowing from arid southern Oregon to the foggy redwoods of the Northern California coast.
Within weeks, the 3,700-member tribes are poised to make use of their new rights to maintain water levels for endangered Lost River and Shortnose suckers, fish they traditionally harvested for food. Under the "first in time, first in right" water doctrine that governs the West, the Klamath Tribes can cut off other water users when the river runs low.
Low flows have already raised tensions between tribes and farmers who draw from the river's headwaters. Cutting off water this year could dry up farmland and bring that looming conflict to a head.
"A lot of people's water could be shut off, and that has huge implications and it affects peoples' livelihoods to the core," said Jeff Mitchell, a tribal council member and its lead negotiator on water issues. "But I also look at our fishery that is on the brink of extinction. We have a responsibility to protect that resource, and we'll do what we need to do to make sure that the fish survive."
The tribes' cutting off water could also spell the end to a fragile truce that was supposed to bring lasting peace to the river. A coalition of farmers, fishermen, tribes and environmentalists forged the Klamath Restoration Agreements three years ago to resolve the distribution of water and restore habitat and bring back salmon by removing four hydroelectric dams. But the deal has languished in Congress, and a year of drought and discord could unravel it for good.
Before the attempt at compromise, the Klamath had lurched from crisis to crisis for more than a decade: water shut-offs that left farmland fallow, flows so low they caused a mass fish die-off, recurring toxic algae blooms that fouled reservoirs, and salmon population declines that closed 700 miles of coastline to fishing.
The tribes fear that exercising their new water rights will make them a target for retaliation or violence. Klamath County is 86 percent white, and the long history between Indians and some farmers is strained.
Some of the farmers resented payments that some tribal members received after the U.S. government terminated their federal recognition and dissolved their reservation in the 1950s.
In recent months, members monitoring water levels have reported being threatened by farmers, and the tribes have sought assurances from law enforcement that they will be protected. State officials have taken the unusual step of assembling a 15-person Klamath Action Team to protect public safety and stave off water conflicts as the region plunges into a severe drought, said Richard Whitman, natural resources policy adviser to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.
The truce was supposed to bring peace along the Klamath. Instead the discord has surged since it was signed and sent to Congress, where it has sat unsigned.
Several environmental groups say the deal provides too much water to irrigation interests and not enough for fish and wildlife. Conservative groups have organized in opposition to dam removal and the Endangered Species Act through the Tea Party Patriots and have unseated pro-restoration officials from local posts in the watershed's upper basin. In February, the Klamath County Board of Commissioners voted to withdraw from the deal altogether.
Tom Mallams, a hay farmer and tea party member from Beatty, Ore., who was elected Klamath County Commissioner in November, said the new tribal water rights are being used as a hammer to try to force opponents to sign on to the deal.
"The supporters of this are desperate," he said. "They're making a last-ditch effort to make it go through right now because they know it's dying. I think some people will sign on to it in sheer desperation, but there is no trust in those agreements."
Becky Hyde, a cattle rancher who lives across the road from Mallams on one of the Klamath's upper tributaries, is a close ally of the Klamath Tribes and worked for years to build support for the settlement. Now, she is trying to assess how many of her and her neighbors' pastures will go dry.
"A year like this," she said, "may be the only thing that gets the people who represent us in Congress to get serious."
Under the settlement, the Klamath Tribes agreed not to use their water rights to shut down the largest group of irrigators. In exchange, the tribes would see restored habitat and the probable return of their salmon fishery and would regain some 92,000 acres of private forestland, a small portion of the reservation the U.S. government dissolved when it terminated their federal recognition in the 1950s.
The Klamath River basin was harnessed for large-scale irrigation by the federal Bureau of Reclamation's 1905 Klamath Project, turning a relatively dry expanse on the Oregon-California border into a rich belt of farms and homesteads, many settled by World War I and World War II veterans. The irrigated lands now support 1,400 farms on 200,000 acres, where fields of alfalfa, potatoes, grains and mint feed from an intricate system of canals, drains and pumps.
Clashes over the water supply boiled over in 2001, when the federal government cut off water deliveries to Klamath Project farmers in order to protect endangered suckers and coho salmon from a drought. The enraged farmers made national news after forming a massive "bucket brigade" to manually pass water into irrigation canals as an act of civil disobedience.
The Bush administration resumed water deliveries the next year, leaving so little flow that tens of thousands of fish in the river's lower reaches washed up dead. The fish kill devastated California's Karuk and Yurok tribes, who depend on the salmon harvest.
Confidential settlement negotiations began in earnest around 2006, when regulators made it clear that PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., would have to make expensive modifications to its series of dams near the California-Oregon border to get them re-licensed. The company agreed to the removal, a condition that was ultimately linked to the 2010 agreement.
Last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior recommended the removal of all four Klamath dams. In one of his last acts in office, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar urged Congress to approve the agreement and fund $800 million worth of habitat restoration and water management programs.
"Once again the communities of the Klamath Basin are facing a potentially difficult water year under a status quo that everyone agrees is broken," Salazar said in a statement.
Not everyone, though, seems ready to move on.
On country roads here, roadside signs in favor of the settlement compete with those reading "Stop the Dam Scams." The Klamath Tribes keep their official seal off government vehicles to prevent windows from being broken and tires flattened. And a giant metal bucket still stands outside the county government building in downtown Klamath Falls to commemorate the demonstrations 12 years ago, when the flow of irrigation water stopped.