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.
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.