Water in Oregon’s Klamath Basin follows the state’s “prior appropriation” doctrine of water use, like the water in most western states. When there is not enough water to satisfy all the water rights, water users with senior priority dates will receive water, while water users with relatively junior rights will not. Water users who are “first in time” are “first in right.”
Earlier this year, a lengthy adjudication process culminated in determinations of claims to the use of surface water in the Klamath River Basin. Water users with recognized claims could thereafter make calls for regulation of junior water users if doing so would result in additional water being available to the senior user. For the first time, the water rights of the Klamath Tribes and irrigators in the federal Klamath Project are legally recognized.
Yesterday, those rights holders made their calls for water, asking Oregon to enforce rights recognized in the adjudication process. The water calls come when flows into Upper Klamath Lake are only 40% of normal, reducing flows vital for fish including the endangered shortnose and Lost River suckers. They mean that some southern Oregon ranchers will have to reduce or completely shut down irrigation this summer.
The area’s water struggles became a focus of national attention in the drought year of 2001, when farmers suffered economic losses due to irrigation cutbacks forced by the drought. The next year, farmers got more water under Bush administration directives, but 64,000 adult salmon died in the Lower Klamath River before they were able to reach their spawning grounds. The destruction of the Klamath’s fisheries by dams and agricultural wastewater has caused many other people to suffer devastating economic losses.
Whenever water must be left in rivers to protect threatened salmon and other species, tensions are certain to escalate. They are likely to flare in the Klamath Basin this summer.
Related Oregon Water Rights Resources
Klamath Tribes Call in Their Water Rights, OPB, June 10, 2013.
Bettina Boxall, Winners in Harsh Battle for Klamath River Water Claim Their Rights, L.A. Times, June 10, 2013.
Oregon Water Resources Dep’t Klamath River Basin Adjudication