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Harmony in the Klamath Basin

The following excerpts come from the new policy paper "Restoring Harmony in the Klamath Basin" issued by PERC, the Center for Free Market Environmentalism, based in Bozeman, Mont. It examines the "Suckerfish War" of 2001 on the Klamath River in southern Oregon and northern California, which pitted federal agencies and the Klamath tribes, concerned with protecting endangered fish species threatened by low stream flow, against farmers who depended on irrigation water from the Klamath Reclamation Project:

This review of the Klamath River basin conflicts indicates that unclear property rights are causing the crisis and that droughts only aggravate the problem. Until steps are taken to clarify rights, crises will recur as claimants battle over inadequate amounts of water.

With rights to water clarified, voluntary trades could reduce the pressure on limited supplies. Farmers use more than 90 percent of the water withdrawn from the Klamath basin. If farmers can trade their water to higher-valued uses, they will have an incentive to conserve on water use and to accommodate changing demands by shifting water from one use to another.

Trading water through willing seller-willing buyer transactions is the only harmonious way for such change to occur.

Some Indian tribes have shown how negotiation rather than litigation can promote settlement of conflicting claims. These negotiations usually give tribes less water than they might eventually get from a long court battle, but they also give the tribes the ability to market their water away from reservations and give them access to federal money to develop water uses. "Negotiated settlements allow the parties to control the resolution of disputes by avoiding the lottery aspect of water right awards under the PIA (practically irrigable acreage) standard," writes Rodney Smith. If parties could be brought to the negotiating table, perhaps through the Klamath River Basin Compact mentioned above, and could agree to allow claimants to trade their rights, trading could replace fighting over water.

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Something like this has happened in the Walla Walla basin near the border of Oregon and Washington, where the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla and irrigating farmers avoided a protracted conflict over water. Under an 1855 treaty, the Umatilla Tribe had been granted the right to fish in perpetuity from the Umatilla River. Later, irrigators were promised water from reclamation projects. In the early 1990's the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service warned that greater instream flows in the region were required for endangered species protection. Farmers were put on notice that there might be cutbacks.

On a collision course with farmers, the tribe avoided a Klamath-like crisis. "The tribe's tactic was not to go to the third-generation farmer and point to his irrigation ditch and say, 'Shut that thing off,'" Gary James, manager of the tribal fisheries program, told a Seattle Times reporter. "We said, 'We need your help. We are not after you, we are here to stay, and you are too. Why not work together?' Our slogan was 'Negotiate, not litigate.'"

After extensive negotiations, the tribe and the irrigators agreed to establish a water exchange. During key salmon migration periods, farmers receive irrigation water from the Columbia River and leave an equal amount of water in the Umatilla River. Because the Umatilla River flows into the Columbia, there is no net loss of water. The Umatilla tribes are active in salmon restoration efforts, funded in large part by the Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers (both under pressure for their detrimental impact on salmon populations). Other water to maintain instream flows is provided from the nearby McKay Reservoir.

This exchange has a number of attractive features. The public funding puts the responsibility for protecting endangered species on taxpayers' shoulders, rather than burdening either the individual tribes or irrigators; this is appropriate because preservation of endangered species is arguably a public responsibility. Equally important, the exchange fosters cooperation. As James put it, "Each side began to understand where the other was coming from ? And as we put this thing together, we began to realize, 'Hey, the other side isn't so bad; they are willing to talk to us.'"

Roger Meiners is professor of economics and law at the University of Texas in Arlington. Lea-Rachel Kosnik is adjunct professor of economics at Montana State University. The full text of the report is available at PERC's Web site,