Could An Alliance Of Tribes And Farmers Solve Klamath’s Water Woes?

The Klamath Basin spans northern California and southern Oregon and has seen frequent water crises between the farming, ranching, tribal and environmental communities. | credit: Devan Schwartz
The Klamath Basin spans northern California and southern Oregon and has seen frequent water crises between the farming, ranching, tribal and environmental communities. | credit: Devan Schwartz


By Devan Schwartz, OPB

A second straight year of water shutoffs in the arid Klamath Basin is drying up ranchland and forcing many ranchers to sell their cattle early.

But the water woes have created an unlikely alliance that could lead to a historic solution.

Scott White is the Klamath Basin watermaster. He has the difficult task of telling ranchers to turn off the water they use for cattle and crops.

“It was probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do – it was a terrible feeling,” said White.

After decades of court wrangling, state water rights became enforceable in the Klamath Basin last year.

Klamath Basin Water Rights

This is how it plays out. Those with the oldest rights make a call to the state of Oregon for the amount of water they’re legally granted. Until those amounts are met, the watermaster shuts off so-called junior water users.

“It was extremely difficult when you’re driving up and down doing your follow-up and seeing all those fields dry up and folks aren’t out working the fields,” White said.

In drought years like last year and this year, that means a lot of spigots turned off, a lot of fields going dry.

So who are the senior water users? In the Klamath Basin, it’s two main parties: a group of farmers from a federal agricultural project and the Klamath Tribes.

When project farmers make a call, water is diverted from Upper Klamath Lake to fields of onions, potatoes, mint, horseradish and grains.

Tribal water rights are a different story. Their water is kept in tributaries to the lake rather than going to ranches. That extra water is meant to improve stream health for fishing and gathering on former tribal lands.

Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, says the long-term goal is restoring waterways for the return of salmon. Four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River have blocked salmon passage for nearly 100 years.

Don Gentry


“I’m always aware of the fact that we don’t have salmon up here anymore,” Genry said. “A number of our tribal members, elders, people that have gone on and aren’t with us here today, talk about the importance of those fisheries and where they caught the fish at.”

2001: A Bad Year In The Klamath Basin

In the flashpoint summer of 2001, the tribes and farmers were in strong opposition. The government kept water in the river system to support fish while project farmers saw their irrigation water shut off.

The bad blood ran deep — with threats of violence and antagonistic signs lining the highway.

For a long time, the tribes and farmers say they could barely sit down at the same table. Now they’re more united than ever.

Both groups support a bill that would remove the Klamath River dams, stabilize the basin’s water supplies and do wide-scale environmental restoration.

Gentry sees great upsides for the tribes. “We really believe that what we’ve built into this is going to help us immeasurably to restore our fish,” he said.

Greg Addington represents Klamath Project farmers. He says the bill would benefit many Klamath Basin stakeholders who joined an agreement to make it happen.

The Klamath Agreements

“This agreement doesn’t make more water,” Addington said. “What it does is it gives people more certainty. So, we’d be knowing early in the season what our amount of water is so that we would avoid involuntary shortages — and that’s really the big thing.”

Addington says the Klamath Tribes made the first move in their partnership. “They were the ones also that came to the table and said, ‘Look, there’s a better way — and a way to share water.’”

Many ranchers were holdouts. They hoped to be awarded the best water rights. When the tribes and the project farmers prevailed, the incentive to stay outside the tent evaporated.

Support for the legislation now includes a majority of those ranchers. So even in a drought year with widespread water shutoffs in the Klamath Basin, there’s hope for a solution.

An Unprecedented Environmental Solution?

Experts say that solution would have historical and ecological significance. This includes Michael Hughes, who directs the environmental sciences program at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Waterfowl at Klamath Lake. Credit: Flickr


“This has never happened in our country — and to my knowledge it hasn’t happened anywhere in the world,” Hughes said.

He argues that the Klamath Basin’s natural resource challenges are more complex than any in the nation’s history. That includes Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River Delta, the Colorado River, or even the Columbia River here in the Northwest.

“Each of them is overshadowed in some way or another by what’s happening in the Klamath,” he said.

No Easy Path For Solving Klamath’s Water Woes

Solving the Klamath Basin’s water woes would be a major accomplishment. And even with some momentum, it remains a difficult one.

A related bill was introduced in Congress in 2011, but it didn’t go anywhere. An updated, more economical version — still about a half billion dollars — is headed for a likely Senate vote this year. It carries support from all four of Oregon and California’s senators.

But the hurdle of a divided Congress remains a very real one. Some conservation groups say the bill doesn’t go far enough for parched wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin. And some ranchers are still fighting in court for better water rights.

In the meantime, watermaster Scott White will keep telling water users to turn off their spigots.

White says he wishes the situation was different — whether through a political solution or even a few more rainstorms.

“If I could put something on my wish-list, the next 10 years would be extremely wet,” White said. “I can’t remember the last time I got a phone call complaining about too much water.”

Klamath Tribal council Stonewalls Tribal Membership at General Council Meeting


Security Guards and Metal Detectors for Tribal membership meeting

Posted by Zig Zag on Warrior Publication

June 2, 2014

(Chiloquin, Oregon)Saturday May 31  A long awaited General Council meeting was held at the Klamath Tribes Administration building that had been originally scheduled for Saturday May 17. The original meeting was rescheduled when the Klamath Tribal Council misinformed the public regarding accusations of “threats” toward Tribal Council. According to Klamath Tribal Councils press release, “some Klamath Tribes members have been campaigning to organize a hostile takeover of the meeting. Threats included chaining and padlocking doors to force the Tribal Council and meeting attendees to remove Gentry from the council and to overturn the results of a recent referendum vote.”

klamath-tribal-meeting-3Klamath members were “wanded” and searched by security hired from Medford before entering the front doors, and asked to provide Klamath Tribal ID to Chairman Gentry’s wife, Mary Gentry, prior to entering the auditorium. Everyone was asked to sign in and wear a name tag. Signs were posted on the front door of the Administration building that read “video/audio recording is NOT permitted, unless specifically authorized by the Klamath Tribes.”

Approximately 100 eligible voting tribal members were in attendance, many who wanted accountability and answers from their elected officials regarding the recent illegal referendum that granted Chairman Gentry signatory authority to sign the “Proposed Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement” on behalf of membership. This agreement, now called the “Klamath Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act of 2014”, was introduced May 21st to Senate by Senators Wyden, Merkley, Boxer and Feinstein.

Every opportunity membership had to discuss the referendum was denied by Chairman Gentry at the General Council meeting. Though membership rights have been compromised by tribal negotiators, the outstanding concern Klamath tribal members have is that their elected leaders did not properly follow the laws of the Klamath constitution regarding a referendum vote.  Throughout the meeting, the Klamath Tribal constitution, bylaws and Roberts Rules of Order were only acknowledged by Chairman Gentry when the rules benefited council and were denied when rules were invoked to conduct General Council business.

“This is a dictatorship!” exclaimed Ramona Mason a Klamath Tribal member.
When addressing Klamath Tribal Council regarding their disrespectful behavior toward membership, elder Heidi Kimbol stated,

“You all look very bad.”

Looks like court, not a general meeting of tribal members…

Klamath Tribes General Council meetings were established to give tribal members the power to discuss issues, make important decisions for their community and to conduct business accordingly. Only limited authority has been granted to tribal council and membership reserves majority sovereign authority to themselves.

But at Saturday’s meeting it was clear that the Klamath Tribal council has abused their authority, publically displaying their unethical treatment of the general membership. And membership finally had the opportunity to unify and vocalize how discontent they are with how their elected leaders conduct themselves.

The General Council meeting began at 10:00 am and finally ended at approximately 5:00 pm, commencing with Councilman Don Gentry’s wife, Mary Gentry, accusing a young woman of “stealing from the tribe.” When asked for clarification on what Mrs. Gentry was referring to, she stated the woman stole coffee cups from a previous public event, cups which were provided for any guests in attendance, free of charge.

Though security was originally hired to prevent a “hostile takeover” of the meeting, the only event where security needed to intervene concerned the Chairman’s wife, Mary Gentry, who was ranting, crying and shaking as she was escorted outside of the building.

Media Contact: Kayla Godowa (541)-844-6114
Rowena Jackson: (541)-246-0281
Danita Herrera: (541)-852-6106

Senators Introduce Bill To Authorize Upper Klamath Basin Agreement

Klamath Lake. New legislation in the U.S. Senate would enact a water-sharing agreement and authorize the Interior Department to carry out the terms of a new agreement signed by tribes, ranchers and other stakeholder groups in the Upper Klamath Basin. | credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Klamath Lake. New legislation in the U.S. Senate would enact a water-sharing agreement and authorize the Interior Department to carry out the terms of a new agreement signed by tribes, ranchers and other stakeholder groups in the Upper Klamath Basin. | credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


By Devan Schwartz, OPB

U.S. senators from Oregon and California introduced legislation Wednesday that’s aimed at restoring the Klamath Basin ecosystem and enacting a water-sharing agreement in this arid region that straddles the two states.

The legislation puts into law the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement, an accord that was negotiated and signed last month by ranchers, tribes, and federal and state officials, according to a statement issued by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

“The people of the basin have set aside their differences for the benefit of the region,” Wyden said in the joint statement from the four senators. “Congress should follow their example, pass this legislation and put the Klamath Basin on the road to recovery.”

The Senate bill gives congressional authorization to the U.S. Interior Department to act and achieve the agreement’s benefits. That includes a water-sharing agreement for ranchers and farmers, tribes, native fish runs and bird refuges. It also puts into law a plan to improve and protect streamside areas and provides economic aid for the Klamath Tribes and their members.

In all, the Klamath Basin restoration is expected to cost about $495 million in federal spending. The bill also clears the way for the removal of four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River, with the Secretary of the Interior making the final decision. Experts say that would be the largest dam removal in history.

Last summer, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden brought stakeholders together to rework the restoration agreements. They had been previously drawn up but never passed in Congress.

Several of those stakeholders signed onto a statement praising the new legislation. They included Trout Unlimited, the Karuk Tribe, the Klamath Water Users Association, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, PacifiCorp and the Upper Klamath Water Users Association.

Other conservation groups such as Oregon Wild and WaterWatch of Oregon say the Klamath Agreements don’t provide adequate water for the Klamath Basin’s wildlife refuges, or go far enough to reduce overall water demand.

The legislation will be referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Wyden is a member and the former chairman.

Klamath Tribes Approve Water Share Agreement

A pile of irrigation pipes in the Klamath. Tribal members in the Klamath Basin recently voted to approve a water sharing agreement with ranchers and other irrigators. | credit: Earthfix | rollover image for more
A pile of irrigation pipes in the Klamath. Tribal members in the Klamath Basin recently voted to approve a water sharing agreement with ranchers and other irrigators. | credit: Earthfix | rollover image for more


April 10, 2014 | Herald and News


A Klamath Tribes vote for an upper Basin water management pact narrowly passed Wednesday.

According to Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry, 564 Tribal members voted in favor, and 419 members voted against the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement (UKBCA), which was released in March. Gentry said he wasn’t surprised by the close vote.

“This is a decision that will affect our people forever,” Gentry said. “We were concerned from the start because of the timeframe; we knew we had limited time to interact with our Tribal members.”

Three Tribal members released a formal statement earlier this week expressing frustration with the amount of time members had to review the 95-page agreement and mail in their ballots.

“The positive vote of our Tribal Members affirming the UKBCA is a monumental step in achieving the long-established goals of our people to restore and protect our Tribal fisheries and other treaty resources,” Gentry said in a statement.

Tribal approval brings stakeholders one step closer to introducing a comprehensive piece of legislation in Congress, ensuring upper Basin water needs are met for generations to come. Upper Basin stakeholders have been working for months as a subcommittee of the Klamath Basin Task Force appointed last July by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

The 27-member task force was divided into three subcommittees focused on improving three areas of Klamath water use: developing a water management plan for the upper Klamath Basin, addressing the affordability of agricultural power rates and lowering federal costs for proposed settlements.

“With approval of the agreement, Sen. Wyden will now move forward to introduce a legislative package to enact the UKBCA. The bill will also include legislation of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), which our members voted overwhelmingly to support,” Gentry said in a news release.

The 2010 KBRA settlement and the related KHSA seek to establish reliable water supplies and affordable power rates for irrigators, restore fish habitat, let the Klamath Tribes acquire the 92,000-acre Mazama Forest and remove four Klamath River dams.

“I certainly feel positive. I know this is a critical step in the right direction,” Gentry said.

Complexity of water pact frustrates some tribe members


April 8, 2014

LACEY JARRELL H&N Staff Reporter Northwest News Partnership

Members of the Klamath Tribes have expressed frustration with the lack of time to review a proposed water settlement as the deadline for a vote nears.

“My vote is no, and I’m not shy about it,” Klamath Tribes member Rowena Jackson told the Herald and News.

The Klamath Tribes and Upper Basin irrigators have been working for more than eight months to develop a pact balancing the needs of upper Basin water stakeholders and the Tribes.

A 95-page settlement, the Proposed Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement, was released March 5.

Klamath Tribes leaders then held four informational meetings across the state the third weekend in March. Klamath Tribes approval requires the majority of members to vote in favor of the agreement. Mail ballots are due by 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry said Tribal leadership knew the deadline would be difficult to meet.

“We’ve done our best to get information out at additional meetings. I certainly understand the difficulty in getting through the long settlement agreement,” he said.

According to the agreement, 30,000 acre-feet of water must be permanently retired by Upper Basin landowners. The water will provide increased flows in Upper Basin tributaries. If conditions of the water program and an additional riparian management program are met, the Klamath Tribes agree to guarantee water to irrigators at levels based on instream flows specified in the agreement.

“Members have no understanding of what they are asking to give up,” Coleen Crume, a Modoc member of the Klamath Tribes, said.

Ecological considerations

The water retirement and riparian management portions of the agreement are intended to help restore and sustain fisheries in Upper Klamath Lake tributaries. As part of the agreement, the Klamath Tribes will receive a

$40 million economic development package, including $1 million a year for five years from the Department of Interior to address tribal transition needs beginning this year. The development package could help the Tribes acquire the 92,000-acre Mazama Forest and fund a timber mill and related industries.

Kayla Godowa pointed out members have had less than a month to review the settlement and supporting documents. Godowa, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, attended an informational meeting in Eugene, with her mother and other family who are Klamath Tribes members.

Gentry said in addition to the meetings, members of the Tribal Council have responded to questions and concerns by email and on the Tribes’ website and Facebook page. A summary about what a “yes” or a “no” vote means was included in the ballot.

“Information has been available for those who want to contact us,” he said.

Godowa does not believe Tribal leadership has had enough input from Tribal members or that leadership has been transparent throughout the settlement process. She wanted to see more direct input and direct representation of members in the proposed agreement.

“I feel like it’s a weak negotiation,” she said.

Gentry explained the process was expedited because the proposed agreement builds on conditions agreed upon in the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which was settled in 2010.

Specifically, he said, the current proposed agreement’s framework was approved by a Tribal member vote as the Off-Project Water Settlement, also known as Section 16 in the KBRA agreement.

“Though the name has changed, that’s basically what it is,” he said.

Gentry said Tribal members voted to approve the KBRA in 2010 and then voted in favor of proposed amendments to the agreement in 2012. Despite support for the KBRA, many stakeholder groups were not included in the settlement. Gentry said to move forward the settlement needed to be supported by the local agriculture community, who are partners in the new proposed agreement.

“This basically brings to the table many who were most actively opposed to the initial KBRA agreement,” Gentry said.

Crume, who attended a Tribal meeting in Klamath Falls, said the agreement doesn’t address the value water has to the Tribes.

“Water is the most precious commodity on Earth. Why would we give up water for a paltry few trees?” she said.

Gentry said if managed sustainably, lodgepole pine harvests from the Mazama Forest could bring as much as $1.5 million per year to the Klamath Tribes. Actively managed lodgepole pine stands are more likely to resist disease and infestations, he added.

Jackson said the $40 million economic package is a short-term solution to supporting Klamath Tribes programs.

“It’s not a fair deal — $40 million isn’t going to last,” Jackson said.

According to Gentry, the economic package isn’t intended to support existing programs. He called the economic package an “infusion of capital” that would allow the Tribes to move forward with economic development, including developing a mill in the Mazama Forest. The mill could create revenue for years by milling, chipping and producing wood pellets, he said.

© 2014 Wallowa County Chieftain. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Klamath Tribes And Ranchers Seek Water Solutions In New Agreement

The Klamath Basin spans northern California and southern Oregon and has seen frequent water crises between the farming, ranching, tribal and environmental communities. | credit: Devan Schwartz
The Klamath Basin spans northern California and southern Oregon and has seen frequent water crises between the farming, ranching, tribal and environmental communities. | credit: Devan Schwartz

Devan Schwartz, March 5, 2014 OPB

An agreement announced Wednesday between ranchers and Native American tribes seeks to resolve contentious water rights issues in the Klamath Basin, a drought-ridden region spanning southern Oregon and northern California.

Amidst a deep drought last summer, the Klamath Tribes and the federal government called on their senior water rights –- meaning they received access to limited water supplies.

As a result, irrigation water was cut off to thousands of acres of Klamath Basin ranchland. This created millions of dollars in losses.

The new agreement seeks reduced water demand by ranchers, along with increased river restoration and economic development for the Klamath Tribes.

Tribal chairman Don Gentry said it wasn’t easy getting all the stakeholders in the Klamath Basin to reach common cause on such a contentious issue.

“It’s nothing short of remarkable that we’ve come to this point,” he said.

Last summer, Larry Nicholson saw irrigation water shut off to his family’s cattle ranch. He hopes that won’t happen again.

“Everybody can have water, where most people couldn’t before,” Nicholson said.

Proponents of the new agreement say it will bring stability to the region and represents an important step forward in a generations-long struggle.

But some conservation groups disagree.

Jim McCarthy of Oregon WaterWatch said the agreement doesn’t go far enough in limiting the amount of water that people will want to withdraw — water that others want to remain in streams to help fish and wildlife . “It’s just not enough water to solve those problems,” he said.

Drought conditions could be worse next summer and fall than they were in 2013. The Klamath Basin currently has a snowpack about 40 percent below what it was last year at this time, according to Natural Resources Conservation Services data.

The new agreement calls for an additional 30,000 acre-feet of water to help fill Upper Klamath Lake –- the source for both the Klamath River and the Klamath Project, one of the largest federal agricultural projects in the country.

This would be accomplished through a combination of reduced ranching through a land retirement program and increased management of streamside areas along Upper Klamath Lake tributaries.

As far as economic development, an additional $40 million would be appropriated for the Klamath Tribes.

Tribal Chairman Don Gentry said this agreement is historic and paves the way for a better economic situation for the Klamath Tribes, in addition to better protecting the natural resources of historic tribal lands.

The new agreement still faces votes by the ranching and tribal communities, and would be folded into federal legislation that is likely to reach opposition in a divided congress.

The legislation would combine the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which stipulates the removal of four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River.

But Gov. Kitzhaber’s natural resources advisor Richard Whitman expressed confidence that the continued leadership of Sen. Ron Wyden could get the bill approved in Congress by the end of the year -– and help solve the water crises in the Klamath Basin.

Klamath Tribes Historic Treaty Right Water Call

Native News Network

CHILOQUIN, OREGON – Yesterday, June 10, the Klamath Tribes delivered to the Oregon Water Resources Department a “call” requesting that the Department take action to enforce the Tribes’ water rights that have been determined in the Klamath Basin Adjudication.

Klamath Tribes

The Tribal Water Rights have been in litigation since 1975.


A “call” is a request that the Department’s Water master reduce illegal water uses and water uses whose priority date is junior to the calling party, until enough water becomes available to meet the party’s rights. Other calls are also expected from Irrigation Districts and others with senior water rights. These are the first such “calls” of their type in the Klamath Basin because prior to the Department’s recent order in the Adjudication determining the pre-1909 and federal and tribal rights in the Basin, Oregon Water Resources Department did not have a basis to enforce for or against junior or senior water rights.

The Klamath Tribes’ rights are based on the needs of plant, wildlife, and fish species the Tribes reserved the right to harvest in the Treaty of 1864, including fish in several rivers, lakes and marshes of the Upper Klamath Basin. The Tribes’ water rights have been affirmed in the courts to have a “time immemorial” priority date, and are the most senior in the Basin. The rights provide that specific quantities of water are to be maintained in stream to provide for fisheries and other treaty resources. Because the stream flows are currently lower than the Tribes’ rights, the Tribes have asked for illegal uses and junio ruses to be restricted until the flows are met.

Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry explained

“Our water rights are essential to the protection of our Treaty resources. I think everyone knows the Tribes are committed to protecting our Treaty fisheries, and this is an important step in that direction. These are not rights granted to the Tribes by the state or the federal government; they are rights our ancestors reserved in the Treaty of 1864.”

The tribal water rights have been in litigation in the Adjudication since it began in 1975.

Most people in the Basin have long known that the Tribes’ senior water rights would one day be enforced, and there would be a transition from unregulated water use. Gentry observed

“Everyone has known this day was coming. It is unfortunate that more people did not join in our cooperative effort to resolve water issues without litigation and calls, but that was their choice. Currently this is the only path available to us to protect our resources.”

Water use in the Basin has not been closely monitored or measured in the past, so it is difficult to say specifically what the impacts of the call will be. But it seems safe to predict that enforcement of the Tribes’ rights will bring changes to Basin water management.

The call is partly due to the shortage of water resulting from the drought plaguing the Basin this year. The water supply is well below normal. Will Hatcher, Director of the Klamath Tribes Natural Resource Department and member of the of the Tribes’ Negotiating Team observed

“A drought emergency has been officially declared, and that provides some flexibility. But in the end, the Water master is required to allocate water according to the priority-date system.”

How long the call will remain in effect is difficult to predict because there has never been a call of this type in the Basin before. Also, the result depends in part on the weather and duration of the drought.