This West Is OUR West

Surveillance photo of fire fuels tensions between ranchers, Yakama Nation

Originally published September 10, 2017

A man walks from a fire at an irrigation company’s water gate in this Aug. 18 surveillance-camera photo. Another photo, showing the man’s face, stirred controversy after being posted on Facebook. The Seattle Times is not publishing that photo because charges haven’t been filed. (Klickitat County Prosecutor’s Office)

Tensions between ranchers and the Yakama Nation over water rights have been heightened since a surveillance photo appeared on Facebook, showing a man in what appears to be a tribal law-enforcement uniform next to a fire at an irrigation structure.

 

This pond would typically be filled with water through the summer, according to property owner Ed Arnold. This year, because of reduced flows, it ran dry in August. (Hal Bernton/The Seattle Times)

 

 

By Hal Bernton, Seattle Times staff reporter

GLENWOOD, Klickitat County — The photo has caused a big stir in this small ranching hamlet in southern Washington. Posted on Facebook and forwarded to law enforcement, it shows a man in uniform standing next to a fire that is consuming a wooden water gate.

A surveillance camera grabbed the image Aug. 18 on Yakama Nation land. It was put there by a small irrigation company that sends water from tribal lands to ranches outside the reservation.

Company leaders had been concerned that someone this summer had been trying to sabotage the structure that funnels water from Cougar Creek, where they hold water rights, into a canal. So they set up the camera.

The camera took a series of photos of what appears to be a Yakama Nation official setting fire to the wooden irrigation gate without so much as taking the badge off his shirt, according to the irrigation company and a Yakima County sheriff’s detective who reviewed images. The man’s face is visible in a shot that an irrigation-company board member posted online to try to identify him.

Other photos include images of the man stacking wood by the water-diversion gate and the blaze starting as he walks away, according to ranchers and the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, which plans to forward the case to the FBI.

“This is pretty troubling, and we will be making sure they are aware of this,” said Detective Sgt. Mike Russell, of the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office.

David Quesnel, prosecutor for Klickitat County, which includes Glenwood, said he also reviewed photos and was concerned by what he saw.

Neither law enforcement nor the tribe has publicly named the person in the photo posted on Facebook. Because the man’s face is shown in that photo and no charges have been filed, The Seattle Times is not publishing that image.

The fire occurred at the tail end of a difficult growing season for the ranchers who own Hell Roaring Irrigation. They reside in a remote southern Washington valley where there have been long-running tensions as the tribe challenged the boundaries set between reservation and state lands.

This summer, a water dispute flared as the Yakama Nation shut off part of the irrigation flows the ranchers normally access on tribal lands. Then in August came the fire that destroyed a structure that diverts creek water into a canal.

Ranchers wondered whether the torching was a rogue action, or might somehow have been sanctioned by the tribal council.

“We were shocked to see what was going on,” said Dan Hathaway, board chair of the Glenwood-based irrigation company.

The Yakama Nation Tribal Council says the incident will be investigated.

“The Yakama Nation has learned of unauthorized and potentially harmful activities of a Yakama Nation employee,” wrote JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, in an Aug. 23 announcement. “These actions, if they are found to have happened, endangered the health and well-being of people and resources.”

Even before the fire, the ranchers’ struggles with the tribe drew the attention of politicians. Rep. Jamie Herrera-Beutler, R-Vancouver, whose congressional district includes Glenwood, has been trying for several months to bring both sides together to talk about their concerns.

At her request, the Interior Department sent a high-ranking official from Washington, D.C., to meet with ranchers and tribal officials in an August trip that occurred just before the surveillance photos were reviewed by the irrigation company.

“Interior has been fully engaged … led by acting Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Alan Mikkelson, who has a considerable depth of experience negotiating thorny issues of this kind,” said a statement released by Dan DuBray, the bureau’s public affairs chief.

Ranchers earlier this month said they hoped to start talks with tribal officials.

“We believe that any issues that the tribe has, we can solve — if given the opportunity, ” said Hathaway, the irrigation-company board chairman and a Glenwood-area rancher.

Tribal chairman Goudy did not respond to requests for comment from The Seattle Times.

Tribe halts access

Fewer than half a dozen ranchers are the major users of the Hell Roaring Creek Irrigation water.

They live around Glenwood, a tiny southern Washington community that on a clear day offers spectacular views of Mount Adams looming over pastures and hay fields.

Much of the water comes from two creeks on tribal land. For each, the tribe approved easements that for decades allowed the wooden structures that funnel water into an irrigation canal that traverses tribal lands. The water then heads south to the ranches, where the water is needed for fields and cattle. A portion of this company water is available for other users, including the Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

The state recognizes the irrigation company’s water rights on the Yakama Reservation, according to Joye Redfield-Wilder, a Department of Ecology spokeswoman.

But the irrigation company also needs tribal permission for easements.

This year, a water dispute flared over one of the easements that allowed the irrigation company to reach Big Muddy Creek, an important source of late-season water for ranchers.

That easement expired in 2008. Even so, the irrigation-company workers continued to have access to the creek-diversion site.

But in a May 25 letter signed by Goudy, the Yakama Nation tribal chair notified Hell Roaring that the company no longer had access to Big Muddy.

Goudy wrote that the ranchers trespassed in their twice-yearly use of heavy equipment to channel creek flows into the irrigation ditch. His letter said that violated tribal water code and the federal Clean Water Act.

“I am responsible for the lands and people of the Yakama Nation, including those things that cannot speak for themselves,” Goudy wrote. “I write to notify you of the Yakama Nation’s Tribal Council refusal to consent to your request for a new road right of way and any continued manipulation of the Big Muddy Creek stream bed.”

Hathaway said Muddy Creek has a rocky stream channel, and moves around each year. The heavy equipment work was needed, he said, to ensure that water kept flowing through the diversion.

“This has been our practice since 1941. Why did it suddenly become an issue?” Hathaway said.

Security camera

Ranchers say the loss of Big Muddy water has significantly reduced their ability to grow forage for their cattle. They say this will be a big economic hit to their operations.

They say signs of the water shortage can be seen just outside of Glenwood.

Cattle graze in a pasture with patches of brown. And a pond that sometimes does double duty as a source of water for fire fighting is now dried up.

Even after they lost access to Big Muddy, the ranchers continued to have a valid easement to reach the Cougar Creek diversion. Though on tribal land, that access had not been contested. They expected to be able to use this second water source without problems.

But in recent months, they say, someone repeatedly pulled out wooden planks that channel the water from Cougar Creek to their canal.

“He tore our stuff out seven different times this summer,’ said Keith Kreps, a Glenwood rancher who gets water from the Hell Roaring Irrigation.

They weren’t sure just who the vandal might be. When the surveillance photos showed a tribal uniform, a new question emerged.

“Why did this happen? That’s the million-dollar question,” Kreps said.