Guest Editorial in Missoula, Montana
Michael Gale (Missoulian, Sept. 17) seems to think that events in Oregon’s Klamath Basin illustrate the danger of entering into a Flathead Reservation compact. Actually, the reverse is true.
Part of the problem is that Gale doesn’t really appear to know what happened on the Klamath. What actually happened is that the state of Oregon determined that the Klamath Tribes have a “time immemorial” right to in-stream flows on Klamath tributaries, which entitles them to make a call on irrigators using water from those streams. And in this very low water year, that’s what they did. When a senior water user shuts down a junior, there is no implication that the senior’s use of water is “more important” than the junior’s. All it means is the senior was there first. It may not lead to the best use of water, but that’s the way Western water law works.
It’s also important to note that the Klamath irrigators who were cut off this summer were not protected by any “paper agreements.” In fact, they declined to participate in the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which seeks to assure that there is enough water, equitably shared, for both fish and agriculture. Other irrigators with rights junior to those of the tribes, who did enter into the agreement, have not had their water cut off.
Like the Klamath Tribes, the Salish and Kootenai tribes almost certainly have a valid claim to extensive time immemorial in-stream water rights. These rights are a matter of law and not a creation of the compact. On the contrary, under the compact, the tribes have agreed to exercise their rights in a way that protects existing junior users, including irrigators. The Klamath experience demonstrates the value of this kind of negotiated settlement, and the perils of rejecting it.
Sen. Dick Barrett,
Senate District 47,