Compromise ended water wars, but Congress yet to act

How a war over water in the Klamath Basin — or the lack of it — became a tentative peace agreement among farmers and ranchers, conservationists and tribes is the subject of a new film, “A River Between Us.”

The 90-minute documentary, several years in the making, had a private showing in February attended by more than 100 people at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland. Its premiere will be April 9 through 13 at the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

The filmmakers are former state Sen. Jason Atkinson, a Republican from Southern Oregon who was in the Legislature 14 years, and Jeff Martin.

Among the attendees was Gov. Kate Brown, who said she was impressed by the film and the “incredible courage” of some landowners and tribal leaders to reach agreement.

The film is partly a history of the Klamath River, which winds 263 miles through southwest Oregon and northwest California. But it focuses on the conflicts arising more than a decade ago over water in the Klamath Basin — an area larger than Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island combined.

In 2001, a drought year, farmers and ranchers were angered when the federal Bureau of Reclamation cut irrigation supplies to leave enough water in the river for fish. Then in 2002, also a drought year, conservationists and tribes were angered by a massive fish die-off in the river, largest in the history of the West.

Atkinson, who narrates the film, says that's when a few people on each side began the slow process of talking with one another.

“These people were risking their reputations and livelihoods to learn about their neighbors and to find compromises to restore the Klamath,” he says in the film.

“If you heal people, they will heal a river, which happens to be the largest conservation project in American history.”

The problem was simple: Not enough water, particularly in drought years, for irrigation, fish and the hydroelectric dams operated by Pacific Power on the river’s upper reaches.

“A lot of people said there is no answer — and I said that can’t be," says Ted Kulongoski, who was Oregon’s governor when 42 organizations finally signed a pair of agreements in 2010. "I know there has to be an answer — and it was as difficult as everybody says it was,” Kulongoski says.

Also highlighted in the film are Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor who was governor of California when he took part in the signings on Feb. 18, 2010, in Salem, and Theodore Roosevelt IV, a conservationist and great-grandson of the 26th president.

Several participants were in the film and the Portland audience, including ranchers Steve Kandra and Becky Hatfield Hyde — a cousin of Mark Hatfield, the one-time governor and U.S. senator — and Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

Because he wants to secure a future for his children and grandchildren, Kandra says in the film, “That’s why this matters to me.”

Also present in the film and in Portland were Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, and Amy Cordalis, a lawyer and a member of the Yurok tribe.

Cordalis says her father taught her that obtaining salmon from the river — now scarce — made Yurok men feel they are providing for their families.

“When your self-esteem starts going out the window, other things in your life do not go well," Cordalis says in the film. "We have a lot of problems on the reservation. But I truly believe that when the river is totally restored, we will see our people healed.”

Under the pair of agreements signed in 2010, water supplies are specified for irrigation, fish habitat and wildlife refuges, and removal of the four hydroelectric dams is envisioned after 2020.

A separate Upper Klamath Basin agreement was signed in April 2014.

The entire plan awaits congressional approval, because it involves dam removals authorized by the U.S. Interior secretary. U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley reintroduced a bill on Jan. 8.

The film acknowledges the plan has its opponents. Some are landowners who oppose removal of any dams, and some say the plan does not go far enough to restore the wetlands of the Upper Klamath Basin.

Although John Kitzhaber was absent from the film’s showing — Kitzhaber resigned as governor amid influence-peddling allegations on Feb. 18 — he received a round of applause as he appeared in the film.

“There is much more to be gained by working with one another, by listening to and hearing one another, by seeking common ground and common solutions, than simply by retreating to well-worn corners,” Kitzhaber said at the 2014 signing that is part of the film.

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