Tribes in Oregon want bigger role in setting state’s water strategy

They’ve asked Gov. Kate Brown to use executive authority to create a task force that includes them in the 100-Year Water Vision

By: - October 8, 2021 5:30 am
Sunset on Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon

Upper Klamath Lake (Jordan Jones, Flickr)

Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes want a bigger role in the state’s planning for the next century of water management in Oregon as fisheries continue to dwindle.

They are asking Gov. Kate Brown to create a new task force for tribes to work directly with state agencies on critical waters. Oregon officials are developing what has been termed a 100-year Water Vision.

“One thing the tribes appreciate is that it has a 100-year perspective. That’s the right kind of timing for something this important,” said Kathleen George, a member of the tribal council of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Tribes including the Grand Ronde believe decisions should consider how they will impact people seven generations from now. 

“We’ve seen water and fisheries plans come and go, and yet we still find ourselves in 2021 looking at crucial endangered fisheries all over the state,” George said. 

Water Vision launched in 2018, but is essentially the execution of a statewide water resources strategy developed in 2012. That strategy laid out 50 recommendations for ensuring clean and safe drinking water, safe water for ecosystems and wildlife, protection from flooding and adequate water infrastructure to support Oregon industry for the next 100 years. 

The project was created in response to extreme stresses on Oregon’s waters and water supplies that have grown in the face of climate change, underinvestment in water infrastructure, a growing population and excessive demands from industry, according to the Water Vision site. The Water Vision is currently being overseen by Tom Byler, director of the Oregon Water Resources Department. 

The request to create a Tribe-Agency Water Vision Task Force, which would include representatives of each of the tribes and representatives from each of the nine state agencies working on the Water Vision, is to bring a tribal lens to the water work, George said.

“We think it’s gonna take that level of focus, working together. Otherwise we’ll have another plan that comes and goes and leaves tribal interests behind,” she said.

The point of the letter was also to bring a sense of urgency George and other tribal leaders feel is lacking from state agencies. 

“Across the state, our tribes are telling the same story – the fisheries they rely on are on the verge of being lost,” she said. 

One part of the plan involved holding talks with stakeholders across the state, including members of the nine tribes. But tribal leaders want to continue working in tandem in a more official and permanent role. George commended the state for reaching out and talking with her and other tribal council members in Grande Ronde in 2019, and she’s hopeful Brown will indeed establish the task force.

Raquel Rancier, Water Resources Department policy manager, wrote in an email to the Capital Chronicle that, “As we move forward with the second phase of the Water Vision process, ensuring that tribes are engaged is a priority. Yes, we will be working with the tribes to shape an engagement process that aligns with their needs and that is responsive to their request in the letter.”

A second phase that began in July has keystate agencies gathering more research and data on the economic value of water in Oregon, the impacts of underinvestment and the creation of a regional water planning and management workgroup.

George said they haven’t received a response to the letter sent last month, but expects that when dealing with state agencies, it can take awhile to hear back. 

“That being said, that’s part of the challenge here,” George said. “The tribes see these issues as urgent, with little to no time to waste. We want to engage soon, outline a process and start meeting and seeing where we can come together.” 

She said the stakes are just as high for everyone in Oregon as they are for tribes, and the sense of urgency should be universal among people in the state.

“It’s not only the culture of tribes at stake here, it’s the culture of Oregon. We associate ourselves with river recreation, as people who are excited about fish and wildlife. If we lose that we lose what the state of Oregon means,” she said.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.