GRANTS PASS, Ore. - With rivers in Oregon's drought-stricken upper Klamath Basin flowing far below normal levels, state water officials started telling ranchers Wednesday they must shut off irrigation to leave water for native fish held sacred by the Klamath Tribes, a federal irrigation project and wildlife refuges downstream.
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.
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.
Douglas Woodcock of the Oregon Water Resources Department said watermasters had completed measuring streamflows to verify the need to start shutting off some irrigators, and were beginning to notify ranchers along the Sprague River and its tributaries.
"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."
Until now, ranchers have been able to irrigate freely, no matter how much water is in the river.
The rivers flow into Upper Klamath Lake, the primary reservoir for the Klamath Project and the Klamath River.
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.
Ranchers have said the shutoffs will be devastating, forcing them to find feed for more than 70,000 cattle grazed on irrigated pasture. Feed is already in short supply across the drought-stricken West.
The Klamath Basin has been the sight 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. The next year, water was restored to farms, but tens of thousands of salmon died downstream in 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.
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.