GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) -- The state of Oregon on Thursday backed the Klamath Tribes' claim to have the oldest water rights in the upper Klamath Basin.
The findings filed with the Klamath County Circuit Court in Klamath Falls gives the tribes a new dominant position in the longstanding battles over sharing scarce water between fish and farms in the Upper Klamath Basin. Farmers and ranchers used to drawing irrigation water from rivers where the tribes now have the oldest claim could be restricted in drought years.
The oldest water rights have the first claim to water, and Oregon Water Resources found that the tribes' claim on Upper Klamath Lake and major segments of its tributaries dates to "time immemorial." The lake is the primary reservoir for a federal irrigation project serving 1,400 farms covering 200,000 acres, and the major habitat for two endangered species of sucker fish held sacred by the tribes. Tribal claims to portions of the Klamath River, which flows out of the lake, were denied.
The department filed its findings after a decade of hearings over more than 700 disputed water rights in the Klamath Basin, a process known as adjudication.
The court still has to hear counterclaims and issue a final order, a process that could go on for years.
While challenges can still be made, the tribes' senior water right goes into effect immediately in water disputes, said Jesse Ratcliffe, attorney for the department.
The tribes have been willing to work with farmers and others in the basin to share the water, and have used the anticipation they would win the water rights battle as leverage for plans to regain some of the reservation timberlands they lost when the tribe was dissolved in the 1950s, and to restore the ecology of the basin. They joined in the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, a companion to an agreement to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River to open up hundreds of miles of spawning habitat for salmon. Both deals have been stalled in Congress by opposition from Republicans, and the Klamath County Board of Commissioners recently voted to withdraw from the restoration agreement.
"It's going to take some give and take by all the parties in the community to create the long-term stability we are looking for here," said Jeff Mitchell, a member of the tribal council and the tribes' lead water negotiator.
If the parties reject the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, the tribes will have to rely on their adjudicate water right, Mitchell said.
"We will use adjudication as a tool if that's all that's available to protect our tribal interests," he said.
Farmers on the project also anticipated this outcome, and signed an agreement with the tribes to provide them water. They also joined in the agreement, which has provisions for sharing water in drought years.
"We view this as a positive outcome," said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.