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', 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.
"It's painful," said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes. "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 Williams 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 only shutoffs were nature totally drying things up," said Sprague River rancher Matt Walters, president of the Upper Klamath Water Users Association. "There were no limitations on anybody. There was no share the pain."
The rivers flow into Upper Klamath Lake, the primary reservoir for the Klamath Project and the Klamath River.
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.
Danette Watson, a consultant to the Upper Klamath Water Users, said the upper basin has about 600 ranches with a total of 180,000 acres of irrigated land. Even in normal years, about 10 percent of them will have to be shut off. She said she hoped this would convince many ranchers to change their practices, planting species of grass and alfalfa that use less water.
"This year we're just going to try to get through," she said. "Next year, let's start looking at how we can change."
Watson said he was diversified enough that he figured he would survive, but some of his neighbors will have a harder time. Many depend on leasing irrigated pasture for cattle from California, and won't be able to get new grazing contracts if they can't deliver on this one.
The tribes issued their call in concert with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which needs water to supply the Klamath Project, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has wildlife refuges that draw water from the irrigation project.
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.