Newsletter: Who owns water?

August 11, 2015

8/11 Episode: WATER RIGHTS


A persistent and severe drought is crippling the West. Reservoirs and wells which were once the source of reliable water, are parched or near dry. Whether it’s higher prices for California grown produce or images of raging wildfires plastered across the internet, there’s no escaping the reality of this long-term aridity. For the people living in Oregon’s Klamath Basin the loss of this critical commodity has challenged relationships among local residents.

This week, we revisit WATER RIGHTS, a Life of the Law episode first aired in November of 2013. Reporter Jason Alpert spent a few months reporting on a dispute between Native Americans and Oregon residents for the rights to scarce water.

“Around the water, there’s just this tension. There’s this natural tension about people who had been on the land before and where we find ourselves today,” said rancher Becky Hyde in 2013.

Take a listen here, and read Jason’s update on the story, below.


Reporter Update: Jason Albert

When I first reported the story “Water Rights” in 2013 for Life Of The Law, the Klamath Basin  had been dealing with cyclic water scarcity for years. Then in 2014, the Klamath Tribes made a historic and legal call on water. Some tribal ranchers and farmers went without. This summer the tribe made yet another call on the Upper Klamath Basin’s scarce water.

Becky Hyde, the rancher you’ll hear in the story wrote in a recent email that it remains unsettling. “It’s hard sometimes to lift your head up out of your own fears for livelihood and realize that we’re trying to hang on for a better future for the communities as a whole. When you’re trying,” writes Hyde, “to harvest a crop or feed cows and stay afloat financially it’s just a grind.”

Following this story over the past two years,  it’s clear that many people in the Klamath Basin are trying to make that grind, less harsh. The Klamath’s stakeholders have hammered out what is called the Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act or KBRA. The KBRA addresses longstanding conflicts about regional fisheries, long-term health of riparian areas, irrigation, the return a parcel of land back to the Klamath Tribes and authorizes the removal of four massive federal dams in the Lower Klamath Basin. It’s a progressive agreement pegged to improving the basin’s ecological health which could serve as a template for possible water management in other areas of the water starved West.

In May 2014, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California introduced SR 2379, the Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act of 2014 in Congress. The Bill died in the last session of 2014 but was reintroduced in January 2015 as S133 and referred to congressional committee.

Rancher Becky Hyde says she remains optimistic, “Again our basin is dependent on Congress acting. Our communities set them (the Congress) up for success.  We did it, we know they can do it as well.”

Ultimately, the Klamath Tribes are key to the KBRA’s success. They possess the Upper Basin’s most senior water rights. So far, they’ve signed on. But their KBRA buy-in was put in jeopardy in early 2015. The tribe had been eyeing 90,000 forested acres called the “Mazama Tract.” With federal assistance the tribe was to purchase the land. But the “Mazama Tract”, a private holding, was sold in February 2015 to a company in Singapore. Now, the company is unwilling to sell the land back to the tribe. Without a land transfer, the tribe has threatened to walk away from its water agreements.

As a compromise, the tribe and the federal government are discussing the possibility of transferring a Forest Service tract that once was part of the tribe’s historic reservation, back to the tribe.

In ongoing conversations I’ve had with stakeholders about water and the West, there is one consistent theme: low snowpack and higher temperatures are the new-normal. Also part of the new normal here in the Klamath is a dependence on cooperation rather than an emphasis on engineering a way out of scarcity.
 – Jason Albert


Life of the Law Advisory Board
Summer Get-Together in Sonoma

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A few members of Life of the Law’s Advisory Board Brittny Bottorff, Osagie Obasogie, Nancy Mullane and David Onek, spent a beautiful summer day with family and friends around Brittny and Asim’s pool talking about all things life and law.

On September 25th, they’ll join Ellen Horne and Tom Hilbink for a full Board meeting in San Francisco. This was one of those great ideas — a chance to spend a day together, eating homemade falafels, homegrown tomatoes, delicious (bakery baked) chocolate chip cookies and share some time in the sun.



pleasure island by todd taylor
Artist Skylar Fein takes us on a LIVE LAW journey into the world of skateboarders, a hurricane, wood in the streets and cement in buckets. Listen to our newest LIVE LAW story here.


What We’re Reading: The Huffington Post’s Ferguson Class of 2014

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It’s been a year since Michael Brown, an 18 year old Black man was shot by Darren Wilson, a 28 year old white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The noon shooting sparked all-night demonstrations in cities throughout the country with protestors chanting, “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot” in reference to witnesses charges Brown has his hands up when he was shot.

In December 2014, President Obama created a commission to recommend police reform in the United States. In March 2015, the US Department of Justice cleared Wilson of civil rights violations and reported that the officer fired his gun in self defense.

In April 2015, Brown’s family members filed a wrongful death lawsuit in state court which was then moved to federal court.

Eight days before he died, Michael Brown graduated from Normandy High School. Some of the graduates of Brown’s class, young men and women who knew him, say it could have been them on the pavement.  They have stories to tell about where they have been since his death, what they are pursuing, and their hopes and dreams for change.

Read their personal stories here.


Stay tuned for next week’s LIVE LAW story: Three Strikes


All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.
– Toni Morrison