Editors Note:  This is not the first time we’ve pointed out water right issues similar to our own, but in the Klamath Basin, Oregon.  This article details the divide and conquer strategy, a tactic also being used in our community to divide people.  This is a very effective tool that takes everyone’s focus off the theft of water and property rights.  This article was published in the Western Ag Reporter, and is reprinted with approval of the author.

By Erika Bentsen

In a ruling on June 13, 2013, county circuit court Judge Cameron Wogan in Klamath Falls, Oregon, refused ranchers’ requests for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to allow their cattle and horses access to drinking water.  Irrigation water out of the Sprague, Williamson, and Wood Rivers and their tributaries were shut off in June after new tribal calls on rivers and streams feeding Klamath Lake left grazing lands and hay fields baking in the sun.  In many cases, irrigation ditches are the sole source of drinking water for the 100,000 head of cattle that graze the basin area in the summer months.

Since the unprecedented calls stem from merely a determination from an administrative law judge without being heard in a formal court, Elizabeth Howard, lawyer for a group of ranchers in the upper basin, asked for the June 13 hearing in circuit court.  She argued for, at the very least, a 24 hour TRO to run pumps long enough to supply drinking water to give ranchers a chance to find alternative pastures or line up trucks to ship their cattle out of the county.  But Judge Wogan denied this request.

It wasn’t until July 2, 2013, that the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association was able to put enough pressure on OWRD (Oregon Water Resources Department) to force them to expedite assembling a commission to allow a minimal amount of water to be used for thirsty livestock.  But even this will expire in six months.

Much has happened in the years following the 2001 water shut-offs in the Klamath Basin, and none of it is very good.  When Kimberly Stassel’s article on Rural Cleansing first appeared in the Wall Street Journal, it was famers in the lower Klamath basin coming under assault by the federal government and local Indian tribes.  The Klamath area is made up of an upper basin with cattle ranches above Klamath Lake, the largest surface area Lake in Oregon, and farms below the lake in the lower basin.

These farms, known as the “Project’  were established by the federal government for veterans returning home after WWI and II.  Farm lots were won by lottery, and the irrigation system of canals were set up with a 1905 water right, regardless of what year the acreage it supplied was put into production.

In 2001 the Project farmers’ water was called because of the Endangered Species Act protection of two species of sucker fish, previously known universally as an inedible, bottom-dwelling trash fish, now elevated to sacred status by the tribes.  At that point, upper basin ranchers united with the lower basin farmers and protested the shut-offs.  When the community was joined, forming a united front, the government and tribes backed down, and the water was restored for the time being.

Exclusive meetings were held – quietly – between government agencies, environmental groups, and the tribes.  The public was not allowed to attend; nor were they permitted to know the context of the delegations.  An oversight?  Doubtful.

In a gesture of accord, a few key Project farmers were eventually invited and then a couple carefully selected upper basin ranchers, some of who received annual salaries by tribal subsidiaries.  But these meeting remained closed to the public.

Then the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) was unveiled with pomp and promise.  This agreement – a tedious, sever hundred page document – was supposed to solve the water problems and create harmony between environmentalists, tribes, government agencies, and agriculture.  But what did it really do?

When wading through the reams of acronyms and legalese, the document is long on presumptions and short on guarantees.  A 50 year end date came to light.

Why?  If it was a good idea, why set it up to stop?

Another choice nugget:  Only the invited attendees of these secret talks received any benefits.  The others who were barred from admittance were put on the chopping block. Upper basin ranchers, local businesses, average taxpayers, and utility customers were left high and dry.

Project farmers, influenced by their elected representatives, turned on the upper basin ranchers and cut a deal with the tribes.  If the Project farmers signed on to the KBRA and helped the tribes get a new 90,000 acre reservation and tear our four power-generating dams on the Klamath River, then the tribes would “call” the upper basin’s water, predominantly dated 1864, and not “call” the Project’s 1905 water, thus taking the water from the senior water rights holders and giving it to the juniors.  Even though the tribe’s water calls are for an in-stream use only, they are bypassing this law and funneling the water to their new friends downstream, who irrigate out of Klamath Lake, Oregon’s “first in time, first in line” water adjudication has been thrown out the window, and the tribes, in bed with the feds and state officials, are getting away with it.

The tribes learned fast.  They altered their original claims on the river system to more closely match the state’s standards.  Then in March of 2013, thanks to an administrative law judge, a lackey of OWRD (Oregon Water Resources Department), the tribes were awarded time-immemorial rights to what amounts to nearly flood level flows.  With this, the tribes have essentially halted all irrigation in the upper basin.  Using tribal claim data, upper basin irrigator would have been shut off 89 of the last 95 years.

The tribes and the government, hiding behind the skirts of the KBRA (Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement), successfully divided the community by pitting farmer against rancher, neighbor against neighbor.  The government and the tribes learned from their original failure when only one group was attacked.  By dangling incentives to some they splintered their opposition.  And they continue peppering the public with half-truths and misinformation, muddying the waters so that the average citizen doesn’t know which group stands for what.

What’s scary is the precedence being set.  If these tribal claims are validated by the court system, no river in the country is safe.   Other tribes throughout the nation are watching the Klamath water fight with interest.  Once precedence is established here, it makes it easy to attack other rivers elsewhere.

These family ranchers were specifically targeted because they aren’t wealthy.  Families are being forced into bankruptcy since their sole source of income is being taken away while the legal battles slowly grind on with delays and hearings and time-wasting lawyers.

In essence they are presumed guilty and punished without ever going to trial.  The tribes, with their $12 million a year kickback from the feds in addition to their casino earnings, can afford to drag this out in court while the individual family rancher goes broke before the case even gets hears.

The upper basin ranchers are fighting this alone.  Their only ally, The Project farmers, has been turned against them.  Unity was what made the 2001 shut offs unsuccessful in the eyes of the tribes and federal government.  So unity has been destroyed.

The ranchers now have their backs up against the wall.  This was a calculated move by the tribes, with more egregious hardships planned in the coming months.  Fundraisers are being held to help pay expensive legal advice.  No one likes to beg for money, but the sad truth is that the ranchers have been forced to hold raffles, auctions and bake sales to get money for their defense.

Donations from outside the Klamath Falls area are desperately needed to stop this unconstitutional taking of private property.  For those who are able to help with legal funding, www.saveourklamathcountywater.org  accepts donations on the rancher’s behalf. Click “Join Us” and make checks payable to Water for Life Foundation.