U.S. Water News Online
PORTLAND, Ore. -- A federal judge has reaffirmed that the
water rights of the Klamath Tribes stretch back to time immemorial,
and backed their right to claim water to support food gathering.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Owen M. Panner in Portland did
not appear to have an immediate effect on the ongoing battle over
water for fish and farms in the Klamath Basin, said tribal attorney
However, it reaffirms that the tribes have the oldest water right
in the basin at a time when that was being challenged under a formal
adjudication process to sort out competing claims for water, Ullman
And it confirms that the tribes have the right to water to support
gathering, such as seeds from the wocus plant in basin marshes, as
well as hunting and fishing, he said.
Last summer, the federal government was forced to shut off
irrigation water to most of the Klamath Reclamation Project to
maintain reserves for fish, including endangered Lost River suckers
and shortnosed suckers which are sacred to the Klamath Tribes.
``This is an important decision for the tribes,'' said tribal
chairman Allen Foreman. ``It is vital to protecting the tribes'
treaty resources,'' such as hunting, fishing and gathering.
The tribes have maintained that the federal government has a
responsibility to leave enough water in marshes and lakes to support
fishing, hunting and gathering guaranteed by treaty.
The ruling came in a case known as United States vs. Adair, which
was originally filed on behalf of the tribes in 1975 to guarantee
water for a marsh on the Klamath Forest National Wildlife Refuge.
The marsh was part of a reservation taken away from the tribes in
the 1950s. However, the tribes retained the right to hunt, fish, and
gather plants on the old reservation lands.
The seeds of a marsh plant called wocus, which resembles a water
lilly, were a food staple of the Klamath people. The wocus population
has declined along with water quality and quantity as agriculture has
taken the place of gathering in the basin.
``The ruling makes it clear that the right to water to protect
treaty resources, including fish, is senior to all the rights in the
basin,'' said Ullman. ``What it does not do is address the
quantification question, which the federal courts have never been
directly involved in.''
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