Water is for Fighting, Part 2, What’s Happening Now

27 May

Yesterday I had a guest post from Ty Kliewer.  Ty is a farmer and rancher from the Klamath Basin here in Oregon and he, along with many other farmers in that area are fighting for their livelihoods, for their way of life, for their farms and ranches.  You can read all about the background on this issue from his perspective here, “Water is for Fighting, Part 1, Background“.

But there is more of the story.  Here is what is happening right now as they continue in their growing season and some of the very real consequences that could come from decisions that are made.  You’re going to see that it’s not just about one farm or one ranch, it’s about an entire community and ecosystem.  Here is another piece of Ty’s story from the Klamath Basin.

This Year will be Worse than 2001
This year’s situation is cataclysmically worse than 2001. That year, we learned on April 9 we were told there would be no water from Upper Klamath Lake before the irrigation season started. We did not spend any money planting and preparing to harvest that fall. This year, we have just enough water to create sharp division within our community, as there will be a handful of “haves”, and a vast majority of “have nots”. 

Built to Farm, The Klamath Lake Project

We typically need about 350,000 acre feet to fully serve the needs of Klamath Project irrigators. . We are given an April 1 allocation each year that is supposed to be the bare minimum supply. Our number this year was 140,000 acre feet, or 40 percent of what we need. In every preceding year, this allocation has been a worst-case scenario and fortunately, improved as time and hydrology played out. 

We are farmers, and figuring out how to do what we can with what we have and hopefully survive is how we roll. Following the April 1 allocation announcement, conservative plans were made so we could do the most good with a very limited resource. Planting, staffing, fertilizing, etc. ensued. Then, on May 9 we learned that our allocation had suddenly been reduced to approximately 80,000 acre-feet, or 23% of what we need, and that 25,000 acre-feet had already been used. This means, from my best guess, our district is going to be out of water in the very near future, likely in the coming days or weeks. We have millions of dollars in the ground, and unless it rains a lot, most of our crops will never germinate, much less make a harvestable crop. 

Losses don’t stop at the farm. No crops mean no need for labor, processing and packaging, which deeply impacts our strong and sizeable Hispanic community. Virtually no water means no need for parts, tractors and irrigation supplies. Farmers and their employees buy inputs, clothes, food, and many other things that are the basis of the basin economy. When farmland dries out, so do all these businesses. If the critical mass of our local agricultural industry is broken and our input providers are forced out of business, our community is doomed. 

The Unraveling
My biggest fear is the “unraveling” that will almost certainly occur to our community, starting very soon. When I graduated from Oregon State University in 2001, I knew returning home was going to mean a far more difficult path than if I would have followed several other opportunities that I had. 

All it takes for evil to prevail is for good to do nothing. Stepping back and looking at things from the outside, it would appear that Upper Klamath Lake rights now belongs to the downriver tribes in California, in a stark contrast to both Reclamation’s core purpose and Oregon state water law. This, despite Section 8 of the Reclamation Act, which states that Reclamation must comply with, and is also in conflict with Reclamation’s core concept of creating communities and food production in the West. 

I am fearful for what the future holds. Our “B” districts, which comprise about a third of the Klamath Project, are going to come to the realization that under the status quo, they will go without water two-thirds of the time. One district in particular, Shasta View – established in large part by the descendants of the aforementioned Czech immigrants- pay their power and assessment on the same bill. They have approximately $150 per acre in liability on land that two thirds of the time will receive no water. At some point, they will come to the realization that what they have worked for generations to accomplish really has a negative value. I repeat negative value. They will then realize they are trapped, and their families’ efforts of the last 100 years have proven worthless. At that point, their district will logically figure out how to dissolve, and then their Reclamation operation and maintenance costs will be heaped on the surviving districts, which also face grave water uncertainty. I fear this will ultimately lead to the collapse of those districts, as well. We estimate that the current market value of the farmland in the Klamath Project alone (without considering improvements) is approximately 1 billion dollars. This is the property tax base that helps pay for our schools, our law enforcement, and our roads. It generates a large portion of the revenue that feeds the business community of the Klamath Basin. If all this withers and turns to dust in the next couple years, where does that leave the tens of thousands of others in our community as current reality becomes the status quo? When 200,000 acres of formerly irrigated lake bottom becomes a dust bowl on every breezy day, who in their right mind would want to live here anyway? 

Wildlife will also Suffer
The Klamath Basin is also home to many more wildlife species than suckers and salmon, who often get most of the publicity. In 2001, we turned our cows out on our dry hay fields, which are usually our revenue generators, to try and hang on to what we had. We had to haul water to the cows every couple days. I had many opportunities that year to see mule deer, which are normally exceedingly adverse to human interaction. We had a very skinny doe and her two little fawns that moved in with our cows. When we watered them, she would charge to the trough right along with the cows, not in the least bit worried that she was coming face to face with a human. The ponds and canals she and hundreds of other wildlife species had depended on were dry, and she didn’t have another water source for miles. One of the most chilling things I have ever experienced was a common occurrence that spring: a silent late night with no croaking frogs, since the ditches were dry and they had all died. 

The Klamath Basin landscape changed drastically in 2001, but the migratory waterfowl did not get the memo. This year will be no different. Thousands of ducks, plovers, and many other species will again arrive to build nests and lay eggs this year, only to face the same detrimental fate as the farmers of the Basin. 

What makes things worse, only adding to my anguish 20 years later, is that the federal government continues to keep Upper Klamath Lake at unnaturally high levels. I believe this has occurred now for 28 years. For the past 20 years, unnaturally high amounts of stored Upper Klamath Lake water have been sent downstream to flow to the Pacific Ocean. We have yet to see conclusive scientific findings that demonstrate this is actually helping fish. So, the myth that this is helping salmon persists. 

If either of these actions had helped the species, I could kind of understand the wake of devastation they have left on my community and ecological system I deeply and fervently love. However, that’s not the case. Both the suckers and salmon are far worse off than they were 20 years ago. I will let you arrive at your own conclusions as to how this makes us feel. 

Tomorrow will be the final blog on this Klamath Basin water issue.  “Water if for Fighting, Part 3, The Ask”

I will say again that any support you could show would be greatly appreciated.  Like their Facebook page, Shut Down & Fed Up and plan to attend the rally being held May 29th!

One Response to “Water is for Fighting, Part 2, What’s Happening Now”

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  1. Water is for Fighting, Part 3, The Ask | nuttygrass - May 28, 2020

    […] I have been posting a series of blogs the past two days about the Klamath Basin Water crisis.  Water is for Fighting, Part 1, Background Water is for Fighting, Part 2, What’s Happening Now […]

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