I have heard time and time again the old saying, Whiskey is for drinking, Water is for fighting. It’s a saying that before I was farming full time I had a hard time truly grasping the enormity of the power of one simple component. Water. For me personally on our farm we don’t fight over water very often. Mostly it’s in the form of over-regulation and so far, in this area, we have had success in fighting to keep what is “ours”, and while that fight is ongoing, the level at which it’s being taken just a few hours from here is overwhelming. In the Klamath Basin here in Oregon the story of protecting water for agriculture has been long fought, with difficulty kept, and is slowly being taken away.
This is a huge issue, one with a long history and I’m in no way versed enough to carry the weight of this topic. So I decided to ask another farmer if I could share an essay that he wrote that encompasses his story. This was an essay written to David Bernhardt, Secretary of the Department of Interior. Below is Ty’s letter and in the next three blog posts you will be able to also read his essay that was attached.
Ty Kliewer is a 2nd generation farmer and rancher in the Klamath Basin here in Oregon. The story is his alone, but as he says in his essay, “Although the story here is mine, there are thousands of them like this around the basin.”
I am the president of the Klamath Irrigation District board of directors and a family farmer in the Klamath Basin. Although the story here is mine, there are thousands of them like this around the basin.
My newlywed parents once had two car payments and two jobs to their name, but they wanted to be farmers. When I was growing up, we didn’t have much, but with many years of diligence and struggle – between my parents, my brother and his wife, and me and my wife – we now farm approximately 1,500 acres in the Klamath Irrigation Project. We also run about 200 head of cattle. My wife and I raise purebred beef cattle with the goal of perpetually creating better genetics that will produce more high quality protein with fewer inputs each generation.
We grow both organic and conventional alfalfa hay and small grains that we have marketed from Fresno California clear north to Seattle, and many points in between. We have sold cattle to buyers in 20 different states. When you’re from southern Oregon, it’s a strange sensation to have your pride and joy living in places like Indiana and Kentucky!
A great part of our herd descends from my first heifer I purchased in 1993 as a ninth grader. Now, I have my own 13-year old boy who thinks about nothing but farming, and an animal- loving 11-year old daughter. They are poised to be the next generation of American food producers, and that gives me a full heart and deep sense of accomplishment.
Again, this is my story and there are thousands of others, and trust me, many are far more compelling. Many farmers in the basin are or are descendants of World War I and World War II veterans who won homesteads in the basin, or are descendants of Czechoslovakian immigrants who fled wartime unrest in Europe to find security and prosperity in the Klamath Reclamation Project.
The Importance of the Klamath Reclamation Project
The core purpose of the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) when it starting building water projects at the beginning of the last century was to bring people to these places in the West to build communities and feed America. Although it has not always been fun or easy, my family and my neighbors have labored, persevered and upheld our end of that bargain. I am sad to say, after generations of effort, today we feel betrayed. Agriculture is the beating economic heart of the Klamath Basin, and although we are admittedly a speck on the map, the scope of what is produced here spreads far and wide. If you have eaten potato chips on the west coast, or In N Out Burger fries, you have probably ate a Klamath potato. If you have had a pizza or a glass of milk on the west coast, you have probably at some point consumed protein that originated in alfalfa fields of the Klamath Basin. A tremendous amount of malting barley used in the west coast’s fabled microbreweries is grown here in the basin. Agriculture, mining, petroleum and timber are the true generators of new wealth. Should our particular wealth generator be shut down, the many new businesses that have opened over the last decade in a recovering Klamath Basin will fail, along with our long term institutions.
Unique Nature of the Klamath Irrigation Project
The Klamath Project is unique in terms of it is a single use project. Upper Klamath Lake Reservoir was developed with a single purpose- to store and deliver water for agricultural purposes. The right to store that water belongs to Reclamation. However, the right to use that water belongs to the secondary water right holders, the irrigators of the project. In recent decades, the Department of Interior (Interior) appears to have decided to assume tribal trust obligations by divvying up the stored water of Upper Klamath Lake. We are all now caught in a convoluted web which has heaped the costs of those obligations on the backs of the Klamath Basin’s farmers, who innocently answered the call to build this community and help feed our nation. In 2014, the Oregon Amended and Corrected Findings of Fact and Order of Determination reaffirmed that project irrigators hold the primary rights to the waters stored in the reservoir. The Bureau of Indian Affairs should have applied for a right for downriver tribes but failed to do so. Instead of purchasing rights for downriver use, as Reclamation does in many other cases, they instead have just ripped them from their rightful holders with no compensation. The web we find ourselves in today has entangled lots of people who are very confused, scared, and now, very angry.
Tomorrow I will post the second piece of the story, Water is for Fighting, Part 2, What’s Happening Now.
Also I want folks to be aware that there is a tractor rally happening around this very issue coming up May 29th. See the flyer below for more information. Also check out their Facebook page, Shut Down & Fed Up for more updates as the event draws closer.