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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Klamath in Peril
Three Decades as a Klamath Project Irrigator: Observations Heading into a Grim Irrigation Season

May 13, 2020 from Ty Kliewer, Klamath Irrigation District Board President and local rancher to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt

Honorable David L. Bernhardt
United States Secretary of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20240

Dear Secretary Bernhardt:

It is with a heavy heart and deep fear for our community that I write you.

Our request is simple. We are on a pathway to doom and it appears this year brings another disaster, likely with worse consequences than what we faced in 2001, the first and only time until now that the Klamath Irrigation Project was shut down for the perceived benefit of fish protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

There are two critical needs we ask of you and the Trump Administration. First, we need federal funding assistance to keep our farms and businesses upright so we can do business in the Klamath Basin next year. Second, we need the Administration to continue to work with Project irrigators and other affected parties to develop a long-term, science-based solution that properly addresses important tribal and fisheries needs and also recognizes the unique nature of this federal water project, which was developed solely to provide stored water for irrigation of local farm and ranch lands. 

I have attached an essay that I wrote yesterday, after learning that the lives of my family, fellow farmers and ranchers, and community members are about to be turned upside down because of decisions made by federal water managers. I know that you are very busy, but I hope that you can take the time to read it. My family and I survived the catastrophic 2001 Klamath Project crisis, and I am prepared to do my best to do so again now, nearly 20 years later. I hope the attached essay captures how many of us feel right now, and how we fear 2020 will be even worse than 2001. The real tragedy is that this largely government-caused “drought” has the same roots of cause as the 2001 crisis: a scientifically unjustified, narrow focus on lake levels and downstream flow releases to avoid jeopardizing ESA-listed fish. While our local farming community will once again carry the burden of these devastating federal directives, the imperiled fish populations show no positive response to these actions.

It is not rocket science – a new management paradigm is needed. The Klamath Basin is at another historic crossroads. A hopeful vision is that increased knowledge, improved management, and cohesive community action will promote recovery of the fishes. This outcome, which would be a great benefit to the Klamath Basin, could provide a model for the nation.

Thank you for your consideration of this letter.


Ty Kliewer

Farmer, Husband, Parent, Brewer,

Klamath County 4-H Beef Superintendent, and

the President of Klamath Irrigation District

Three Decades as a Klamath Project Irrigator:

Observations Heading into a Grim Irrigation Season

By Ty Kliewer

Family Farmer and President of the Klamath Irrigation District Board of Directors

May 12, 2020


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 are from southern Oregon, it is 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 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 Project.

The Importance of Reclamation and the Klamath 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, 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 eaten 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 the Interior (Interior) appears to have decided to try to mitigate environmental concerns 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 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 could have applied for a right to Upper Klamath Lake water for downriver tribes but failed to do so. Instead of purchasing rights for downriver use, as Reclamation does in many other cases, it instead has 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.

This Year Will be Worse than 2001

This year’s situation is cataclysmically worse than 2001. That year, we learned on April 6, before the irrigation season started, that there would be no water from Upper Klamath Lake. 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, and there may be a handful of “haves,” but a vast majority of “have nots.”

We typically need about 350,000 acre-feet of water 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 would have been considered a worst-case scenario but fortunately, as time and hydrology played out, we avoided receiving an allocation that terribly low.

We are farmers. Figuring out how to do what we can, with what we have, and with hope, is how we roll. Following the April 1 allocation this year, conservative plans were made so we could do the most good with a very limited resource. Planting, staffing, fertilizing, etc., ensued. Now, we are coming to learn that our allocation had suddenly been reduced to approximately 80,000 acre-feet, or 23 percent 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 do not stop at the farm. No crops mean no need for labor, processing and packaging, which deeply impacts our strong and sizable 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 of Our Community 

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 belong to the government or downriver tribes in California, in a stark contrast to both Reclamation’s core purpose and Oregon state water law. This is occurring despite section 8 of the Reclamation Act, which states that Reclamation must comply with state law, 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, who 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 besides the suckers and salmon who get most of the publicity. In 2001, we turned our cows out on our 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 did not 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 Upper Klamath Lake water have also been sent downstream to flow to the Pacific Ocean. We have yet to see reliable scientific findings that demonstrate this is actually helping fish; in fact, the National Academy of Sciences did not support the “more water means more fish” mantra. Yet, the myth persists that high releases are necessary to help salmon.

If either of these actions had helped the species, I could kind of understand the reason for devastation they have left on my community and ecological system I deeply and fervently love. However, that is 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.

My “Ask”

Our request is simple. We need funding so we still have upright farms and businesses in the basin next year. Like agriculture across the United States, trade wars have been painful here too, albeit the fight was worth picking and winning. Unlike everywhere else in COVID 19 America, our current potentially fatal peril has been brought upon us exclusively by our federal government. When I woke up this morning, I asked my wife to tell me I have just had a really bad dream. She instead reminded me that COVID and water shortage are very real. In the long term, Reclamation must recognize that this project is different. The water here does not belong to the National Marine Fisheries Service or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It belongs to the farmers that Reclamation brought here to build this community and help feed our nation.

There are two critical needs we ask of you and the Trump Administration. First, we need federal funding assistance to keep our farms and businesses upright so we can do business in the Klamath Basin next year. Second, we need the Administration to continue to work with Project irrigators and other affected parties to develop a long-term, science-based solution that properly addresses important tribal and fisheries needs and also recognizes the unique nature of this federal water project, which was developed solely to provide stored water for irrigation of local farm and ranch lands.

We have upheld our end of the bargain through generations of both strife and prosperity. It is Reclamation’s turn to uphold its part of the bargain.




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