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Klamath farmers protest early water cutoff

Issue Date: June 3, 2020
By Christine Souza
Farm equipment and trucks participate in a convoy to draw attention to the Klamath Basin water crisis, which has resulted this season in a severe cutback of the allocation announced by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in April, which was already about one-third of average supplies. The latter reduction was announced after crops were planted and investments made by farmers, leaving them with water only through mid-June.
Photo/Chelsea Shearer
California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson speaks during a rally calling attention to farm water shortages in the Klamath Basin.
Photo/Ned Coe

In two weeks or less, farmers and ranchers near the California-Oregon border will see their water supplies run dry, after operators of the federal Klamath Water Project unexpectedly cut allocations in response to concerns about protected fish.

Klamath Basin farmers say crops planted in response to an earlier allocation from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will wither without enough water to complete the season.

"It's going to be heartbreaking," said farmer Scott Seus of Tulelake. "We're at a weak state of the economy because of COVID and you go throw this on top of it, this is something that no community should have to weather."

Farmer Ben DuVal of Tulelake said farmers in the Klamath Project planned for the growing season based on an early allocation of 140,000 acre-feet, and invested dollars in planting crops. Then, he said, the agency, "cut the early, already meager allocation to between 55,000 and 75,000 acre-feet." The average irrigation demand in the project is 400,000 acre-feet.

Cody Dodson of Tulelake, who grows alfalfa and barley in the basin, said farmers planned according to the initial allocation, "then, May 1, we got absolutely blindsided."

"I had already planted all my grain, so I didn't have a chance to take advantage of preventative-plant programs or land-idling programs. Hopefully, I get my bills paid," Dodson said.

To call attention to the situation, some 2,000 or more farmers, community members and supporters from California and Oregon took part in a convoy of tractors, farm vehicles and pickup trucks in the basin last week, rallying for lasting solutions to the decades-long Klamath Basin water crisis that benefit all interests and recover fish.

Although it has been a dry year in the basin, farmers say water shortages have been worsened by outdated science guiding biological opinions for protected fish: endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers and threatened coho salmon. Speakers at a rally following the convoy said the approach hasn't improved fish populations but has resulted in farmers going out of business.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson was among those addressing the crowd at a farm near Midland, Oregon.

"In California, battles over everything from spotted owls and delta smelt to salmon have reshaped our rural communities and, sadly, have only created tremendous industries of conflict with little to show in the way of improvements for these species," Johansson said, adding that the lack of success shows that conservation efforts have reached a crossroads.

"We can either continue down the path of escalating conflict and seemingly endless cycles of listings and lawsuits, or we can take a long look at what the past 45 years of implementing the Endangered Species Act has taught us, conflict after conflict," said Johansson, who was joined at the convoy by CFBF First Vice President Shannon Douglass and Second Vice President Shaun Crook.

"This fight isn't about farmers versus fish," Johansson said. "This fight is about a scientific model that has failed our communities and wildlife of our states and our nation."

Elected officials at the rally said they remained hopeful short- and long-term solutions could be developed.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, said he and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., would seek financial assistance for the basin, "but that's not what this is about."

"We're going to fight for getting the full allocation back so you can at least finish the season," LaMalfa said.

Walden said the time has come "for a complete reset" of policies governing the basin and expressed hope the Trump administration would re-examine those policies.

Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Paul Simmons said the organization is working aggressively with federal agencies and congressional representatives from California and Oregon to secure relief for the region, adding that a longer-term hope is that irrigators can return to a more collaborative process with other parties, including tribes and fishing and environmental groups.

In 2001, Klamath Basin farmers organized a "bucket brigade" to protest a cutoff of project water, and the region's water supply has been the subject of ongoing negotiations and litigation in the years since.

DuVal, who serves as vice president of the KWUA, said that for the past 20 years, the Klamath Project "has been used as a backstop for fisheries issues, and it hasn't done any good but is absolutely devastating to the communities here."

"Whether it be the farmers, the suckerfish or the salmon, nobody is in any better shape," he said. "We've gone to higher and higher lake levels in our main reservoir, Upper Klamath Lake, with zero enhancement for suckerfish. Until the parties can work together on coordinating some objective science that looks at those issues, we're going to be continuing to fight it in court, and that's not productive for anybody."

Farmer John Crawford of Tulelake, who took part in the 2001 protest, said the higher lake levels are "decimating" the protected fish while also reducing habitat for bird species and other wildlife on Klamath Basin refuges.

"We are all victims of water policy that seems to be guided by broken promises, not just broken promises to project irrigators regarding allocations, but promises to protect endangered fish in Upper Klamath Lake," Crawford said.

"I was hopeful that I would not be standing here today, and during a crisis much more serious than in 2001," he said. "My hope is that somehow my 4-year-old triplet grandsons will have the opportunity that was afforded my brother and myself, our grandfather and father. Without change, that hope will surely fade away."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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