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Tensions Over Use Of Klamath River Basin's Water Were Magnified By Drought

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Over the past week, our colleagues over at The Indicator have been reporting on the historic drought in the West. They spent some time with ranchers on the front lines, including the Klamath River Basin. Sally Herships and Ashley Ahearn report.

ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: Over in the Klamath River Basin - that's in kind of south-central Oregon along the California border - there were record-breaking high temperatures. And then, this huge megafire started - the Bootleg Fire. And it ended up burning more than 400,000 acres.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: And in the Klamath, there are a lot of different stakeholders, or maybe we should think about them like shareholders of the water in that basin, right?

AHEARN: Yeah, totally.

HERSHIPS: You've got several tribes fighting to keep enough water in the lake and river for fish.

AHEARN: And then add to that, of course, you've got ranching and farming happening, which is a more than $200 million industry in that watershed.

HERSHIPS: So in the spring, irrigation water for farmers was shut off for a whole season. That's the first time this has happened since the system was built back in 1907. And that's when things got interesting.

AHEARN: Yeah. So back in early spring, there were two local guys who bought a small piece of land right where there's a key irrigation gate. And this gate basically controls the central artery for water for Klamath farmers and ranchers. And these guys were threatening to force the headgate back open.

HERSHIPS: They invited Ammon Bundy and his group, People's Rights Oregon, to come and help them with the protest. And just in case you need a reminder, he's the guy who led the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge a few years ago.

AHEARN: When I heard about that, of course, I wanted to talk to somebody on the ground, so I called up Becky Hatfield-Hyde. She's a cattle rancher in the Klamath, and she's been following the water issues there for a long time. Right now, for the record, she has zero water.

BECKY HATFIELD-HYDE: It's like you're sitting there in the ER dying.

HERSHIPS: So Becky and the other ranchers, tribal members - everyone's stressed out because of the heat, the smoke, the water shortage, and then the Bundys add fuel to the fire.

AHEARN: Exactly. So those Bundy-affiliated guys that bought the land, they set up this red and white - it looked like a circus tent, and they started holding meetings about water rights. And it was a lot of saber rattling, you know, but folks were really worried - who were following that - that things could go sideways at a moment's notice.

HERSHIPS: Because there's some history there. Back in 2001, the federal government shut the same headgate to keep enough water in the lake for endangered fish, and local protesters forced the gates back open multiple times. Things got violent, and there was a lot of anti-tribal racism.

AHEARN: Yeah. And so Becky's watching this happen, and she's, you know, someone who's cared about water issues there for a long time. And she said it just made her sick when she heard the Bundys were getting involved.

HATFIELD-HYDE: I see them as extremists. And frankly, real ranchers and farmers have had zero time this year to be sitting around at a headgate protesting something.

HERSHIPS: She says the protest just fizzled out.

AHEARN: Yeah. And so then a few weeks ago, the tent was quietly taken down. And so Becky's big concern now is that we make this a "Groundhog Day" scenario, where we see this thing play out year after year - low snowpack in the spring, hot wildfire-ridden summers with no irrigation water that leads to escalating water tensions and then just hit repeat. She says we got to get out ahead of this.

HATFIELD-HYDE: The Bundys don't get us out of this, we get ourselves out of this by working carefully and thoughtfully together. This is a system. It is a watershed, and it desperately needs all of us on board, all hands on deck.

(SOUNDBITE OF REXY SONG, "RUNNING OUT OF TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.