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Farmers, ranchers want their share of water

Council formed to keep 30,000 acre feet flowing to valley

Mail Tribune

Concerned they may be left high and dry over decisions regarding the future of water diverted from the upper Klamath Basin, Rogue Valley residents are plunging into the controversy.

The goal of the newly formed Rogue Basin Water Users Council Inc. is to keep flowing the 30,000 acre-feet of stored water diverted each spring and summer into the Bear Creek watershed and upper Rogue Valley from the east side of the Cascades.

"One of my concerns, from an agricultural standpoint, is I don’t want to see the Rogue Valley converting into nothing but housing developments," observed Eagle Point rancher John Dimick, one of the council organizers.

"You take that water away, and what’s going to be growing on those acres? Probably houses," said Dimick, a retired high school agriculture teacher.

The diverted water is vital to farmers, orchardists and irrigators in the Rogue and Bear Creek valleys as well as countless local shallow wells, council members say.

Straddling the Oregon-California border immediately east of the Cascade Range, the Klamath Basin has been the battleground for a water war in recent drought-stricken summers with Indian tribes, the fishing industry, environmentalists, farmers and ranchers all vying for limited water.

The debate spilled over into the west side of the Cascades earlier this year after the Oregon Natural Resources Council and the Northcoast Environmental Center in Arcata, Calif., filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation unless it completed required Endangered Species Act consultation with biological experts from other federal agencies over the diverted water’s impact on endangered species.

As a result, the bureau agreed to file a biological assessment this past summer looking at the diversion’s impact on endangered plants and animals. It also agreed to submit the assessment to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA-Fisheries by the end of August.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will complete any required biological opinion on environmental issues raised by April 1, 2004.

The water-users council, which includes the Talent, Medford and Rogue River Valley irrigation districts, wants the bureau to grant it "applicant status" in the consultation process which they say will ultimately impact the diverted water.

"That status would mean we would be considered players, that we would have a voice in the matter," Dimick explained.

The council hopes to avoid a "full-blown water war," which could include taking legal action to achieve applicant status, Dimick said.

While local agricultural water users are looking at ways to reduce water use, implementing that improved technology will not happen overnight, he said.

"The reason applicant status is so important is that if they take action to curtail water, we won’t have anything to say about it," he said.

"They are seriously trying to inflict a little pain on the community," he added of those who would stop the water diversion.

Talent resident Ron Meyer, president of the Talent Irrigation District board and a third-generation local pear grower, agreed.

"We want to be advocates in these consultations," he said, noting the diverted water is from winter storage, not summer flows.

Bureau officials say the districts have not met the legal requirements for applicant status. But the officials insist they are working with the districts to ensure they have a participatory role. However, the bureau has decided to include only federal facilities in the process, and not the private facilities operated by the districts.

"We’ve made a decision (not to grant applicant status) based on law," said Ron Eggers, the bureau’s area manager in Western Oregon and Western Washington.

"The water districts haven’t liked it but we have granted them a participatory role akin to applicant status, and we intend to work closely with the districts," he added.

The bureau is also reconsidering the applicant status determination, he said.

"We’re trying to work closely with the districts and include them in the process, not only the biological assessment but the biological opinion as well," he said, later adding, "We’re not going to develop this without having the districts at that table."

But federal regulations don’t allow official "applicant status" in the consultations unless the federal agency involved is granting a permit or license to the applicant, he reiterated.

"We’re not in that process with the districts," he said. "We denied the districts applicant status based on regulations that we’re obliged to comply with. They already have existing contracts with the bureau that have been in place for long periods of time."

The ONRC has no objections to the water-users council being involved in any consultations, observed Jay Ward, its conservation director.

"We’re all for having more people at the table," Ward said. "How the bureau follows the law shouldn’t be a matter of who is sitting at the table."

The ONRC believes the bureau should have included both private and public facilities in its studies, Ward said.

"The bureau is the only one who doesn’t want to include private facilities," he said. "We want them included."

Both environmental groups had used the threat of a lawsuit as a last resort, he said.

"We would have preferred they would have done the biological assessment and the biological opinion without our filing a notice of intent to sue," he said. "Any time the government has a legal responsibility, it should be carried out."

The water-users council believes the bureau’s biological assessment was "hastily" compiled as a result of the threatened lawsuit, Meyer said.

"We’re not opposed to providing good habitat for endangered species but we don’t want bad science," he said.

While the focus has been on the diversion's impact on endangered suckers and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath Basin, council members say the diversion has enhanced endangered species on the west side of the Cascades, including northern spotted owls and salmon.

Meanwhile, council members say losing the diverted water would impact the entire upper Rogue and Bear Creek valleys.

For instance, the Rogue Valley pear industry, which has been tapping into the Klamath Basin water via gravity-fed canals for more than half a century, is valued at about $14 million and covers nearly 8,000 acres. It is dependent on that diverted water, Meyer said.

"Losing that water would kill the pear industry here," he said.

"If that water supply is reduced, not only will it hurt the irrigators, but it will hurt the aesthetics of the valley and dry up a lot of shallow wells," he added. "This could affect almost everyone in the valley."

How much water and who gets it?

Authorized by Congress in 1954, the Rogue Basin diversion project includes an average 24,000 acre-feet stored each winter in the Howard Prairie and Hyatt reservoirs from Jenny Creek on the east side of the Cascade Range. However, more than half of that stored behind Howard Prairie dam comes from the Rogue drainage.

Another 6,000 acre-feet from the Fourmile reservoir drainage in the Klamath Basin is diverted into Fish Lake each winter, then flows into the Little Butte Creek watershed.

TID receives the lion's share of the diverted water while the rest goes to the Medford and Rogue River Valley districts.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com


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