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Keeping Water with White Farmers at the Expense of Salmon and Indigenous People

The Klamath Basin: a Bad Water Deal

by FELICE PACE

Like any other deal allocating scarce natural resources, the newly announced Klamath Water Deal should be judged on the merits, that is, on what it actually says and does, not on press statements and spin. All Klamath Water Deals should be viewed within the context of the push by the federal government and western states since the late 1980s to “settle” outstanding tribal water rights. To date, over 30 such agreements have been ratified by Congress and dozens more – including the Klamath Water Deal – are in the works.

Examination of completed deals reveals that the federal government’s agenda has been to keep water with white farmers and especially with irrigators who get irrigation water from the US Bureau of Reclamation. The same is true of the Klamath Water Deal.

As the legal trustee for federal tribes, the federal government is supposed to protect and advance the tribes’ interests. However, examination of dozens of western water deals shows that the Feds have not acted in good faith as the tribes’ trustee. Instead the feds have encouraged tribes to accept government funding in exchange for giving up – or agreeing not to exercise – tribal water rights.

Those water rights are the only hope for really restoring our rivers and – in the case of western salmon rivers – our salmon runs; that hope is evaporating as more tribes settle for government funding rather than sticking to the right to restoration flows. The idea that government funded restoration projects can substitute for restoration flows is a chimera; tribes, environmental and fishing groups that have bought into that myth are sadly misguided.

While some tribes have negotiated better deals than others, in general western tribes have or are in the process of given up water rights worth billions for the modern equivalent of a fistful of beads. Historians will look back at this western water settlement era as the second great rip off of US Indigenous Peoples – first they took the land and tried to “exterminate” the people; now they are taking the water.

Tribal governments, which are cash strapped and dependent on the feds for funding, can not be expected to resist pressures to settle even when that is not in the long term interest of the people those tribal governments represent.

In the Klamath River Basin the Klamath Tribes are willing to not exercise rights to restoration river flows in order to regain their land base which was illegally and immorally terminated by the Feds in the 1960s. The Klamath Tribes should not have to chose between land and water but that is the reality they face.

Felice Pace is a longtime environmental activist in northern California. You can find his writings online at Bearitude in Black.