CHILOQUIN —Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribal Council, isn't shy about defending the water claims made by the Tribes to divert water on the Williamson and Sprague River systems in mid-April, nor in explaining the justification behind them.
The Klamath Tribes made the request for water to provide for maintenance of the streams and riparian areas and the lakes to provide for fish and other resources valuable to the Tribes, according to Gentry.
He sat down with the Herald and News Friday, detailing the ins and outs of the Tribes' water rights dating back long before the Treaty of 1864. The agreement was signed by the Klamath Tribes and the U.S. Government, in an effort to preserve their water right for the years that followed.
The treaty allows the tribes to hunt, fish, trap, and gather on former reservation land, and according to a court case Gentry cited, the water is necessary to maintain those activities.
“We have a right to treaty resources and we have a right to water to provide for those. That's a longstanding legal precedent that's been affirmed in the courts,” Gentry said.
Ranchers feel threatened
Ranchers in the upper basin have criticized the call, claiming they will have a short window to irrigate and water their cattle this spring, and they have no water available the rest of the summer. Some believe this call could put them out of business.
Gentry commented that while the wet weather throughout the winter and early spring has been helpful, the result of consecutive dry years in the Klamath Basin means there's a need to recharge water systems.
“A lot of the riparian area sort of acts as a sponge,” Gentry said.
“It takes a while to recharge the system and actually a lot of our systems are spring-fed. The water flows right out of the ground, and some of those springs with many years of drought, they're not flowing at the levels that they would typically flow at. So that affects surface water.”
Call could change
The request for water by the Klamath Tribes could run through May 31, according to Gentry, and is subject to change.
“When we put our claims together, we knew that it was apart of regular stream health and channel maintenance,” Gentry said.
“It's not only for maintaining water at certain levels, it's for the habitat and other riparian species that are important to the health of the stream … To provide for those other species, flooding is a part of that.”
Gentry emphasized that Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) is justified in validating the water claims, but are not giving the tribes new rights. Instead the state is validating longstanding rights already in place.
“A lot of this flows clear back to the treaty in 1864,” Gentry said. “That was negotiated through provisions and opportunity in the Constitution of the United States, article six. Our treaty is just as valid as the Constitution.
“What good is a treaty right if you don't have the resources to use to exercise that right?” Gentry asked.
“Essentially our treaty rights were a property right that were intended to be reserved … We have those rights that were ours to begin with when we reserved the lands.”
He ackowledged the concern and impact to Upper Basin irrigators as well.
“I can see there's an impact on the agricultural community,” Gentry said. “I don't want to marginalize that one bit.”
Gentry cited a court case, which he said affirms the right of the tribes to keep water in-stream to provide for treaty resources and maintain a modern standard of living.
“We're just asking for justice,” Gentry said. “We're just trying to hang onto what has been reserved by treaty despite what has happened to us.
“After all these years and our tragic history and the things that have been imposed on us, that we're the bad guys now for trying to protect the remnant of what we have.”