Fish vs. Farm Fights
by Rocky Barker
Debate rages on water rights in Oregon
The new head of the Bureau of Reclamation worries that the discord over fish and farming in the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon could spread.
Farmers have defied a federal court order and opened headgates holding back irrigation water after the court decided in April to withhold water from irrigators under the auspices of the federal Endangered Species Act. John Keys worries that the anger and conflict could spread if the drought continues into next year.
"I think the Klamath Basin is fairly representative of the West," Keys said in an interview in Boise on Tuesday. "If we have a second year of drought, we will be facing this problem all over the West."
Under federal court order, the Bureau of Reclamation cut off water to 200,000 acres of farmland to protect endangered Lost River suckers, short-nosed suckers and coho salmon in the Klamath River. A similar cutoff of irrigation water in Idaho would idle more than a million acres.
Keys, 59, heads the agency that built 600 dams, including Grand Coulee, Hoover and Arrowrock, across 17 Western states. He returned Tuesday to Boise, where he had served as the bureau's Pacific Northwest Region director until 1998.
He is responsible for projects that irrigate 10 million acres and provide water to 140,000 farms in the West.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton relieved some of the Klamath pressure earlier this month when she released a small amount of water to farmers.
But Keys said a long-term solution will require innovation and collaboration between the parties.
"We can't manufacture water, but we can talk," he said.
Part of the problem, Keys said, is that Oregon has not sorted out water rights in the Klamath Basin. That has allowed some farmers to water their crops without cutbacks even though farmers who were cut off have older water rights and should have had first call to the water.
Idaho has been sorting out water rights throughout the Snake River Basin since 1987 at a cost of more than $25 million so far. A state court already settled 87,811 water rights and has 25,800 pending, said Dick Larson, an Idaho Department of Water Resources spokesman.
"We've made real progress," Larson said.
By legally sorting out the rights and by allowing farmers to temporarily transfer water, Idaho has avoided the legal battle that has cut off water in the Klamath, said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Waterusers Association.
But as long as the Endangered Species Act allows federal agencies to require additional water beyond what the government owns to save fish, Idaho will remain threatened, Semanko said.
"It comes down to scientifically what do you need and are you going to take the water or not," Semanko said.
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