Judge rules against upper Klamath Basin ranchers

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — A Klamath Falls judge denied a request Tuesday to keep the state of Oregon from shutting off irrigation water in the upper Klamath Basin.

That leaves intact a state decision recognizing the senior water rights of the Klamath Tribes.

The water rights decision came down this spring, as drought began to sap the water supplies in the high-desert basin.

The tribes have used their water rights to protect threatened fish, and state workers have been shuttling off irrigation water in the upper basin where ranchers use the water to green up pastures and grow hay.

Judge Cameron Wogan ruled Tuesday against putting the water rights decision on hold while it’s appealed. He said that could take five to 10 years.

A stay would give the ranchers water in violation of the “first come, first served” principle of Western water law, he said.

Granting a stay, Wogan said, “would elevate petitioners over everyone so they would be the only ones to get extra water if downstream rights are curtailed as they request.”

The ranchers have four cases before Wogan. He rejected stay requests in two. He said the plaintiff in a third may want to consider withdrawing to avoid exposure to liability for damages if a stay were granted but the appeal eventually failed. He set a hearing next week to schedule arguments in a fourth that still has a chance to make arguments for a stay.

The water rights decision from the Oregon Water Resources Department decision came after nearly four decades of litigation, and it gave the tribal group a dominant position in the basin’s long water struggle.

It also turned the tables on upper basin irrigators. During a drought in 2001 that brought national attention to the Klamath Basin, irrigators in the lower basin bore the brunt of irrigation cutbacks, while the upper basin irrigators had the water they needed.

But this year, because of the water rights decision, the upper basin irrigators have less senior water rights and are facing shut-offs.

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