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Guest Editorial
by Becky Hatfield Hyde, Yamsi Ranch

Welcome to the New Millennium in the Klamath Basin: Water, Whiskey, Murder, and Hope

I’m the youngest daughter-in-law on a ranch with a large extended family, run by my 70-year-old German mother-in-law. I've decided that my initiation into the family was being given the reins to deal with family water negotiations in the Klamath Basin. As many Oregonians know, being involved in water in the Klamath Basin today is like ending up at the dessert table eating sugar-free carrot cake when only moments ago there was plenty of chocolate truffle cake.

Our ranch, Yamsi Ranch, begins right below the headwaters of the Upper Williamson River. We have about ten miles of river on six miles of land. We raise cattle, run a fly-fishing business and have a special interest in wildlife. The land was pieced together about a hundred years ago by Uncle Buck, a bachelor from Michigan who bought up Indian allotments. He built his own white-tablecloth restaurant in Klamath Falls so he'd have a nice place to eat a steak when he went to town. Much of the land along rivers above Klamath Lake was former Indian allotment land. I painstakingly went through old, tattered-green ranch ledgers to determine that Buck actually bought the land from these families, rather than just traded it for whiskey—a long held community belief.

Klamath Basin before...

Klamath Basin before . . .

Klamath Basin after...

And Klamath Basin after . . .
Photos by Norman MacLeod.

Because our land was former allotment land, we have an 1864 water right. This puts us on equal standing with allotment land still in Indian ownership, and ahead of the Klamath Project with its 1904 right. From the beginning of negotiations we've taken the tribes' time immemorial water right very seriously, and felt negotiations with the tribes were important. With the help of my husband we developed a negotiation strategy. First, we'd look hard at our own water use, and see where we could make cuts. Next, we'd listen and learn from the other claimants about their needs for water. Finally, we wanted to be part of a solution that was good for our whole community, including the wild resource.

I attended my first Alternative Dispute Resolution meeting with my three-month-old daughter Elizabeth, and found a room full of people that I didn't know wearing blue and gray suits, toting cell phones and briefcases. I hung in the back with the diaper bag, running out every time Elizabeth made a noise. The tiny handful of ranch and farm locals tried to fill me in on who some of the folks were. "Federal lawyers", they'd say—in that same voice we used to use at home when we knew woodrats were in the basement of the house. "Lots of federal lawyers that fly in on airplanes." Also "tribal attorneys from the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colorado." There were lawyers for the tribes, the Oregon Water Resources Department, the Klamath Project, and Water Watch. Over several months I began to unravel who the different players were and why they were at the table.

We were encouraged to form small negotiating groups focusing on our area to try and come up with settlement solutions to keep our various disputes out of court. We formed the Upper Williamson ADR negotiating group, and our first meeting was in the Methodist Church in Chiloquin. This old church has seen better days—freezing in the winter and hot in the summer—but one of the only meeting places you can find in Chiloquin. We invited Mike McKoen from the Klamath Project, who ran a potato distribution business in Tulelake, to this first meeting. His group, the project irrigators, was way ahead of the upper basin in negotiating with the Klamath tribes. In his green ballcap and faded jeans, accompanied by that Western farming dialect, he shared with us the basic principles of sharing and working together, and what this meant to his heart and philosophy on life. He talked about the desire for the ag community as well as the tribes and resources to remain whole. When the tribes showed up, they went downstairs to the Sunday school room while we finished learning about common decency from a middle-aged farmer.

Jeff Mitchell was the tribal chairman at the time. Our family was familiar with him, mostly because a close relative of Jeff's had my father-in-law in the sights of his rifle on Williamson Road one afternoon years ago when he was trying to fix the insulators on the old phone line that went to the ranch. He didn't shoot my father-in-law—he just stood there and held the rifle on him for quite awhile.

I was moved by Jeff's presentation that day. He gave us a tribal history from his perspective, including what surrounded the termination of tribal lands in the 1950s and the hardship the tribes faced after their loss of land. Living in Chiloquin you can see the hardships every day. But hearing them from Jeff was quite powerful.

From that day forward we had many meetings. We discussed everything from water quality and endangered fish to the return of tribal land and maintaining a healthy agricultural economy in the basin. We talked about current issues and worked toward resolving and understanding some that were a hundred years old. I am grateful for these discussions, the foundation of what makes good decisions in communities. They are the decisions that save fish and wildlife and save communities. They are about where we want to be, not where we are. And up until about last September, I believed we were making significant progress. Then all hell broke loose.

"Federal Agent Viewing Area."

Local signs show rising concern and
aggravation over Klamath water issues.

Photos by Norman MacLeod.

"Loss of Wildlife Habitat Brought to You by United States Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries."

During the changeover from the Clinton Administration to the Bush Administration, two federal actions threw things off kilter. Their timing infuriated me, because communities last longer than political administrations. First, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, acting on behalf of the Klamath tribes, filed a motion to reopen a recent court decision for further clarification on the time immemorial water right. The point of our previous negotiations was to avoid lawsuits, and this move by BIA was a slap in the face.

The more dramatic event has been the joint decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to raise the level of Klamath Lake for endangered suckers while increasing flows to endangered Coho Salmon downstream. The decision resulted in a shutoff of water to 1,800 families in the Klamath Project area and two important wildlife refuges, creating grim circumstances:

  • Regardless of the lake level decision, the Basin is in a serious drought this year. The head of Oregon Water Resources Department, as part of the last gasp for federal mediation that Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber put together this summer, recently said, "The upper basin needs to share the pain" in the Klamath water crises. The upper basin constitutes the farming and ranching community above Klamath Lake, whose water hasn't been shut off this summer. The same day, we moved 150 heifers off meadow land that usually lasts us through the middle of September. We pulled the cattle two and a half months early. We hay the wild meadows of upper Klamath Marsh, and this year we'll get one-third of the normal hay crop that is essential for feeding our cows in the winter. We have 20 percent of normal flows in the upper basin this year.
  • Fish and Wildlife estimates that up to 900 bald eagles may die this year because of lack of water to lower basin refuges. This doesn't even take into consideration the other migrating birds so dependent on both the lower basin refuges and the farmland.
  • A young Indian boy in our community got his head kicked in at a typical Chiloquin drinking party by a white kid and died several days later. My nieces and nephews in the same age group who knew the kids said the argument was over water.
  • Several Hispanic families have been forced to move from the lower basin because they have no work. Some of these families have lived, worked, and been part of the fabric of the lower basin farming community for years.
  • Fertilizer and pesticide dealers who've primarily sold product to people in the Klamath project have lost their market this year. So they've moved into the upper basin to try and expand market. Now chemicals are being applied where they may never have been in the past, in the upper basin.
  • Health clinics in Merril are reporting a drastic increase in depression, and the crisis center is filled to capacity.
  • Record returns of Coho Salmon in the Columbia River system are offset by the increasing number of Coho caught in the Columbia and shipped to the Klamath Basin to feed hungry farmers who are pressuring the food bank. Some of these same farmers have themselves provided potatoes to the food bank for years.
  • A Klamath river rafting company is boasting great rapids on the Klamath River this year despite the drought. No diversions for irrigation to the Klamath Project have created superior rafting conditions.
  • The Klamath River is flowing at seven times its "normal" rate, past Irongate Dam, to benefit the endangered Coho. Even at seven times the normal flow, in such a drought year, that's not much.
  • Environmental organizations are stalking the lower basin like a pack of hungry wolves trying to convince traumatized farmers to sell their land for $4,000 an acre, packaged through deals they believe can be struck with the federal government. This approach to demand reduction, a concept that everyone in the basin is aware of, contrasts sharply with the soulful conversations about demand reduction in farm country only nine months ago.
  • It's been joked that every well driller within a thousand miles is in the Klamath Project this summer, drilling expensive irrigation wells that are some farmers hope for stability in the future. This crisis well drilling has sprung up over night with little thought given to the relationships and potential conflicts between groundwater and surface water.
  • Local rallies have become commonplace. Nearly 20,000 people passed buckets of water in downtown Klamath Falls to fill irrigation canals, bypassing the water use restrictions, carrying signs encouraging reform of the Endangered Species Act.

No water for the fields means no hay and
no revenue for local farmers and ranchers.

Photo by Norman MacLeod.

With the constant three-ring circus, and mutual negotiations now far behind, a solution does not seem likely in the near future. Yet, many of us in the ranching and farming communities of the Klamath Basin agree that there are certain steps we must take to bring our community together again.

For example, we need to recognize and celebrate the good restoration activities happening all across the basin. For instance, Fay Weekly is an Ecosystem Restoration Office biologist who, with her soft-spoken manner, has managed to connect with a crusty landowner on the Sycan River. His property is one of the most damaged in the Basin. For years cattle have camped on the banks of the river and in the springs. The land has been overgrazed to dirt and only sprouts a few thistles here and there. Yet, between Faye and the landowner there's a vision of a healthy riparian area, with the springs benefiting fish and the land regaining its beauty. Together they're working to turn the land around. And the imperfect efforts they are making will in fact work. One day this denuded land will provide habitat for endangered suckers, nesting ground for Sandhill cranes, and willows for migrating songbirds.

Every constituent in the Klamath Basin needs to play a positive role. We need to gather the thinkers from the headwaters of the Williamson River all the way to the mouth of the Klamath. We need to bring in the irrigators in the Project, who at one talked about demand reduction. We need to gather up all the tribes. We need scientists at the table so their hard, fact-based work gets a reasonable hearing, not just tossed in the wind and wasted by what's politically vogue at the moment. We need thoughtful, open-minded environmentalists. We need high-level government representation with the willingness to make commitments that mirror tribal trust, endangered species protection, and reclamation. We need to develop a vision of what we want the Klamath Basin to look like, and be like, a hundred years from now. Ultimately, our decisions for water use in the Klamath Basin need to be based on economically, ecologically and soulfully sound planning.

We've heard a great deal about communities of place—and place-based decisions. Yet there are also communities of interest, and the community of interest around water is large. We need this community of interest to be based on and a part of sound, equitable decision making. We want the community of interest surrounding water to help us save our community of place.


Becky Hatfield Hyde is a concerned rancher living in Oregon's Klamath Basin.
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