Region has strong ties to irrigation issues

Life in the Klamath Basin is virtually inseparable from the water and the natural resources that in many ways define this amazing place. The land and water of the region have shaped livelihoods and created cherished traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Too often, though, and for too long, water and natural resources have been a source of conflict. At certain points, such as during the water shutoff in 2001, the Klamath Basin emerged onto the national stage as an example of how things can go seriously wrong.

Many cynics thought the water allocation problems were intractable and that this conflict would continue for decades or longer. But today, the Klamath community has not only proved those cynics wrong; it’s proved that the Klamath Basin can step onto the national stage in a different way, as a model for finding a better way forward.

Several years ago, a group of visionary leaders in the community came to me to talk about how to move forward in the debate over water management. As they put it, the strategy of fighting and suing each other wasn’t working for anyone but the lawyers. These leaders — who had faced off against each other in court and in community debates — had quietly come together to talk about a different way of doing business: working together to manage water resources in ways that would be better for everyone.

I was initially skeptical that such controversial issues could be resolved and that people who had disagreed so strongly could collaborate and reach agreement. But I knew it was important. I knew that a path of collaboration rather than conflict was a better solution for the community. And I knew that if the stakeholders in the Klamath Basin could go from conflict to collaboration on such a difficult and complex set of issues, it could be a model for the rest of the country. I told those leaders that if they could get to a final agreement, I would do everything I could to support the effort.

Against the odds, the stakeholders kept meeting and produced the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement in February 2010 — and I went to work drafting legislation in Congress to implement the agreement.

Later that same year, a worst-ever drought gripped the region. Under duress, diverse stakeholders can pull apart or pull together. They pulled together, and they used their newly forged relationships to respond promptly and effectively to the drought by securing assistance from the Departments of Agriculture and Interior. In addition, I led a successful effort by the congressional delegation to obtain $10 million in emergency funding for the Basin to support the agricultural community and tribal economic capacity — helping to keep the community whole during that summer’s emergency.

Since 2010, the process has gained momentum. The community worked out the new Upper Basin Agreement and I have continued to assist by securing resources from the Department of Agriculture to enable ranchers and tribes to put in place conservation practices that will help implement that agreement.

The people of the Klamath community have acted, and they’ve come together to bridge their divides. Now Congress must do the same, and pass legislation implementing the Klamath Basin agreements developed by local leaders. It’s no secret that today’s Congress is a poisonously partisan and gridlocked place. But if Klamath stakeholders can put aside decades of conflict and work together toward a better future, Congress should be able to as well.

The people of the Klamath Basin have chosen cooperation over conflict. Congress should do the same. As long as I am Oregon’s U.S. Senator, I will keep doing all I can to implement the vision the Klamath community has developed and ensure that our land and water continue to support Oregonians for many generations to come.