▶️ Water War: Long-running battle over irrigation heats up in Klamath Basin

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KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – It’s fish versus farms, irrigators versus the Federal Government in the Klamath basin, where our Western drought is hitting hard and drawing attention from outside the state.

The water allotment for 200,000 acres of irrigated agricultural land in Southern Oregon and Northern California has been cut to zero this season.

Mike Mckoen sees the wreckage all around him and says it’s sickening to watch his fields dry up and watch topsoil blow away.

His frustration and sadness are palpable as he digs dead plants out of a bone-dry field that should be planted with a healthy mint crop.

“This is particularly tough,” he said. “This is a third-year mint field, it should be at peak production.”

And it should be at the point where the crop can pay for the initial planting and the care and feeding over the previous two years.

Mckoen planted just 15% of his available acreage this year, seeing that water allotments would be low. He didn’t expect that allotment would be cut to nothing.

Now he’ll get by on whatever private well-water he can access and just hope he survives and the bank stays patient.

His mint-distilling operation is silent and likely to stay that way, a loss that reaches beyond his bottom line and into the community.

“The payroll here was over a quarter million, that’s in a two-month time period,” he said.

But the bottom line suffers too.

“Just because you don’t have water doesn’t mean you get to turn off the expenses,” said. “I went to the insurance company and said ‘look, we don’t have water this year so there’s not much going on and what can you do?’ They said don’t you remember in 2018 when we had this conversation and we lowered your premiums? There’s no more room to reduce.”

He shakes his head about the state of the Klamath basin.

“Some of the most productive farmland in the world,” he said. “It just has a little bit of water.”

The water allotment for more than 1,000 irrigators has been cut because of two species of fish, native to Upper Klamath Lake and its tributaries. (Considerations for salmon downstream on the Klamath River also factor in.)

“Why keep doing the same thing over and over again with no positive results? It makes no sense.”

The Bureau of Reclamation wants to keep lake levels high to support those fish and try to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

Don Gentry, Chairman of the Klamath Tribes, tells us the fish are on the brink.

“We refer to them as the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “They are so hardy and tough and if they’re about to go extinct then there is something really wrong.”

In fact, he says more needs to be done, that water quality is just as important as water quantity.

He’d like to see more emphasis put on dealing with upstream pollution and riparian degradation issues on the rivers and streams that flow into the lake.

He is gently, but fiercely protective of the tribes’ ancient treaty rights and how they figure into the current stalemate.

“To me, the rights that we have are inherent inalienable rights that we have as being the first people of the land,” he said. “You know that whole concept of first in time, first in right is a pretty recognized universal.”

At the south end of Upper Klamath Lake is a piece of property where all of this is now coming to a head.

Property and water rights advocates have set up a big red and white tent and labeled it the “Water Crisis Information Center.”

It’s on land right next to the headgates that hold back the water from the main delivery artery, the “A” Canal.

Dan Nielsen and Grant Knoll bought the shy acre with a specific purpose in mind.

“It’s close to where we need to be,” Nielsen said. “So we can have these protests and rallies and nobody can kick us off.”

They and their supporters say this water war is less about farms and fish and more about Federal Government over-reach.

“Our big brother the Federal Government is saying ‘hey, we distribute the water we do it how we want, we don’t have to abide by state law. We think we have supremacy over state law'” said Knoll, who sits on the board of the Klamath Irrigation District. “And we’re saying ‘no.’”

It’s a familiar fight for the two men.

“Damaging it is not going to do any good.
We’re trying to protect it, protect our water and the project.”

During a similar water shut-down 20 years ago they were on the front lines, taking direct action, helping open the headgates to the canal.

And they say openly they will do it again, claiming the plan to cut through the headgate fence, bring in a crane to remove some itens blocking the gates, and carefull let the water flow in the “A” canal .

Nielsen took issue when we described it as vandalism.

“Damaging it is not going to do any good. We’re trying to protect it, protect our water and the project,” he said.

When pushed on their plans he confirms there’s no question they’ll open the gates.

That attitude has drawn the attention and the support of Ammon Bundy, the man who led the takeover at the Malheur wildlife refuge offices five years ago.

Knoll shows off a picture of the three of them when Bundy paid a visit last year to the site where the tent now stands.

“Oh yeah, we’re in contact with him. He’ll support us. He won’t come start the fight but he’ll support us,” Nielsen said. “He made a promise he’ll be here when and if he needs to be here.”

There are a few things the farmer and the tribal leader agree on.

One is that Amon Bundy should just stay away.

Gentry: “We have our own issues our own agendas, things we have to work out here locally, somebody coming from a distance maybe connecting with some in the community, I just don’t see how that’s going to help us. I don’t see it as a positive thing.”

Mckoen: “I hope Mr. Bundy keeps doing whatever he’s doing in Idaho. I support that. I just don’t support him coming here.”

Another agreement is that the fish are important, although Mckoen expresses some frustration that decades of fish protection measures don’t seemed to have produced the expected results.

“I don’t know a farmer who isn’t a conservationist,” Mckoen said. “There is nobody I know that wants to see those species in peril, let alone going extinct.”

But even so, here we stand, after 20 years of doing the same thing, ‘more water for fish’.

“And we haven’t saved one fish, not one sucker, not one salmon,” he said. “Why keep doing the same thing over and over again with no positive results? It makes no sense.”

For Don Gentry it’s a simple choice; keep helping the two species of endangered suckers.

“Are we going to lose these fish forever? The fish our creation story tells us the Creator put here for us?”

And while both men talk optimistically about the need for all sides to stay connected and continue working through the problems, down at the info tent the talk is more about action.

“It takes people to stand up,” Nielsen said. “The only way you can beat the government is you gotta stand up.”

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