Commentary: Farmers must work together to solve water problems


Issue Date: May 23, 2018
By Ben DuVal, Brandon Fawaz and Jim Morris
Irrigators in the Klamath Basin have no water this spring, and irrigators along tributaries to Klamath Lake also lack water. Farm Bureau leaders in the region say a much-needed, long-term resolution to water shortages can be achieved only by focusing on solutions and avoiding conflict.
Photo/Kathy Coatney

It isn't easy for farmers from different parts of a watershed to talk with each other about water. This is true for neighbors on a creek, it is true in the Central Valley and it is true in the Klamath Basin.

Though there will always be conflicts within agriculture about water, we can find new ways to talk about those differences. Improving our communication on water opens the door to working together. Working together increases our ability to develop new ideas, advocate for solutions, adapt to changes and defend what we must protect.

There are moments in time when people must overcome old habits if they are to survive. Now may be such a time for those of us who farm in the Klamath Basin.

Things are very difficult for Klamath Basin farmers and ranchers—again.

Irrigators in the Klamath Project do not have water this spring because a judge in San Francisco determined the water should be sent down the Klamath River to flush out a naturally occurring parasite that can kill juvenile salmon. Although water may be available later this season, it will do little good if there is no water available for planting this spring.

Irrigators along tributaries to Klamath Lake do not have water this year because the Klamath Tribes called their senior water rights. These water rights were granted to the tribes in an adjudication a few years ago, to ensure adequate flows to protect fish and riparian habitat.

Having water supplies cut off because of fish resonates with many California farmers and ranchers. Not only does it remind Klamath Basin irrigators of 2001, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cut off water to use it for endangered suckers and salmon, but it reminds us of:

  • San Joaquin Valley farmers in 2007, when pumps were shut off to help the delta smelt;
  • Grape growers in the Russian River watershed in 2009 and a resulting frost regulation;
  • Farmers and ranchers in the Sacramento River watershed in 2015, when the State Water Resources Control Board issued curtailment orders on Mill, Deer and Antelope creeks to benefit spring run chinook.

For many of those farming in the Klamath, this is as hard as it gets: They have no water. It will not be easy to find solutions—or even to find out how to find solutions.

But there is one thing farmers and ranchers in the basin can do differently: We can work harder to work together.

It can be difficult for farmers and ranchers to talk about water when our interests don't align, but Farm Bureau is uniquely situated to help farmers and ranchers have this difficult but necessary conversation. As California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson said not long ago, "Farm Bureau can be a safe place to have a dangerous conversation."

This is just what Farm Bureau did a couple weeks ago, when the California and Oregon Farm Bureaus and Siskiyou, Modoc and Klamath County Farm Bureaus met with Alan Mikkelsen, special assistant to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, to discuss a draft list of principles intended to inform discussions about resource management in the Klamath Basin.

Though this meeting was mostly a listening session, one among many Mr. Mikkelsen held throughout the basin, it also continued the conversation among farmers and ranchers from all parts of the basin. Using Farm Bureau's remarkable grassroots network, three county Farm Bureaus and two state Farm Bureaus engaged in a conversation about Klamath Basin water—a conversation we must continue.

Finding a path toward a long-term solution in the basin will require taking advantage of every opportunity, coming up with new ideas to fill the gaps, and fighting to protect what we must. To do that, we need to focus our energy on solutions and avoid unnecessary conflict. Every battle one farmer fights against another just consumes resources needed for overcoming much greater challenges.

We recognize change has always been inevitable. But we don't accept that change has to come at the cost of our farms, our families and our communities. Farmers and ranchers will continue to work on projects and activities to help fish, but solutions to fish issues must involve more than just taking water from agriculture.

We are proud to produce food and fiber to provide for our families, contribute to our communities and help feed and clothe the world. But we need to accept that this does affect the environment.

While farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin take pride in caring for our environment and our communities, we recognize there are changes on the horizon for all of us in the watershed. These changes are not affecting us all the same now, and we will not all end up in the same place—but we will all be affected.

This realization means that as agriculture, we must find a way to talk together, work together and survive together. The fact is, there simply are not enough farmers left for us not to get along.

(Ben DuVal is president of the Modoc County Farm Bureau. Brandon Fawaz represents Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama and Trinity counties on the California Farm Bureau Federation Board of Directors. Jim Morris is president of the Siskiyou County Farm Bureau.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.