Klamath Tribes Score New Victories in Klamath Basin Water Rights Adjudication
An important milestone in the Klamath Tribes’ effort to secure their treaty-reserved water rights was reached on April 16 with Administrative Law Judge Joe L. Allen ruling in favor of quantification of the Tribes’ water rights for two water sources, the Klamath River and Klamath Lake, in the amounts claimed by the Tribes and the United States, Bureau of Indian Affairs as trustee for the Tribes. The rulings were a resounding victory as they adopted, across-the-board, the water amounts sought by the Tribes, and confirmed, once again, that the Tribal water rights are the most senior in the Basin. The Proposed Orders add to six earlier victories achieved by the Tribes in December 2011 – for Tribal water rights in the Williamson, Sycan, Sprague, and Wood Rivers, the Klamath Marsh, and in 140 springs scattered throughout the former Klamath Reservation – and bring to a close this phase of the decades-long litigation of the Tribal rights.
Since time immemorial members of the Klamath Tribes hunted, fished, trapped, and gathered throughout their vast ancestral homeland located in and around the Klamath Basin. In their 1864 treaty with the United States, the Tribes reserved the right to continue their traditional harvest activities on the Klamath Reservation. And for the last 36 years, the Tribes have been involved in litigation to secure the water rights necessary to support fish, wildlife, and plants to allow the Tribes to exercise their treaty-reserved harvest rights.
As in the six earlier Proposed Orders, Monday’s Proposed Orders confirmed the amounts of water claimed by the Tribes and the United States are the amounts necessary to establish and maintain a healthy and productive habitat for treaty species that will enable the Tribes to exercise their treaty-protected hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering rights, and also ruled that the Tribal water rights can extend to off-reservation water sources where necessary to support the Tribes’ on-reservation harvest rights. Tribal Vice-Chairman, Don Gentry stated, “These rulings are definitely a victory for the fish and all the water dependent resources that are important to the Klamath Tribes.”
At the same time, the Klamath Tribes’ Negotiation Team has also been working hard on settlement negotiations regarding Klamath Basin water and related resource issues, resulting in the introduction of legislation last fall to enact the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA). “These rulings reconfirm the role that the KBRA can play in resolving Basin resource issues. The Tribes will continue to work with others in the Basin to determine the best path from here on,” said Jeff Mitchell who leads the Team. “With the results of the adjudication process becoming more clear, now is the time for Senator Wyden and Representative Walden to join Senator Merkley in supporting KBRA legislation and press forward with Senate hearings,” added Mitchell.
“This is an important step in the Adjudication, although much work remains to be done as the cases move on from here to the Oregon Water Resources Department Adjudicator and then on to the state circuit court. Meanwhile, it is a time for the Tribes to feel good about their commitment to protecting Treaty water rights and other resources,” said Tribal Attorney, Bud Ullman.
Along with Klamath Water Adjudication Project attorneys Bud Ullman and Sue Noe, the Native American Rights Fund has represented the Klamath Tribes throughout the Klamath Basin Adjudication process. “NARF is honored to represent the Klamath Tribes and we are pleased for what these rulings mean to the Klamath Tribes and its citizens. This is a good time to recognize all those involved, notably NARF attorney David Gover and former NARF attorney Walter Echo-Hawk,as well as the support staff that is instrumental in these types of cases. We also appreciate our counterparts at the U.S. Department of Justice and Bureau of Indian Affairs for their tireless efforts over the years, but we are mindful that it’s not over,” said NARF Executive Director, John Echohawk.