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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Modoc, Siskiyou and Klamath County leaders: Devastation, desperation for Klamath Basin agriculture

Agriculture is at the core of the economies, lifestyle and culture of Klamath, Modoc and Siskiyou Counties. So is the wildlife that co-exists with our ranches and farms. This proud tradition is under threat. Sadly, the general public appears to have no idea what is happening, or how bad and unnecessary it is.

On May 7, the boards of commissioners (Klamath) and supervisors (Modoc and Siskiyou) held a joint meeting, the first of its kind in anyone’s memory. We wanted to send a unified message to Washington, D.C., Salem, and Sacramento, about the dire circumstances facing the Klamath Irrigation Project and the need for immediate action.

Our agenda was limited. Going into it, we thought the meeting would be wrapped up in less than an hour. We expected to simply review two letters drafted by our staffs for the three counties and jointly approve them and know that we had done something positive.

We did that. Our letters support disaster assistance for farms and ranches and commercial and tribal fishing interests. Our letters call for collaboration in solving the Klamath Basin’s challenges.

But it was the unexpected events that dominated the meeting, which lasted over two hours. One item on the agenda allowed for local water managers to provide an update on water conditions. We certainly got the update, and in the process we learned firsthand what is really happening to real people.

The recent Herald and News coverage captures the formal business conducted at this meeting, but the undersigned would like to expand on events that unfolded at the meeting telling the powerful and tragic story of how our community is scrambling to prepare for a devastating summer.

Parts of our meeting evolved into emotional conversations between local elected officials and farmers, water managers and business owners in the audience. We heard first-hand accounts of the hardship, the complexity of compounding complications, and the heroic efforts of farm operators, water managers, and local business who are trying to hold it together. These hard-working producers — through no fault of their own — will see zero Klamath Project water supply that was specifically developed to support their operations. Imagine if someone took all of your blood and told you: “Just deal with it.” It’s that bad.

The most striking visual of the day was the map prepared by Tulelake Irrigation District staff, showing each ownership parcel in the district, color-coded to indicate what types of crops — potatoes, mint, onions, garlic, horseradish, grain — would get groundwater, and which would go fallow, without water. The fallowed land — color-coded orange — was, by far, the dominant shade. And we know that some other districts are in even tougher shape than TID.

Based on what we heard, it’s clear that our communities will suffer economically this summer. We know what to expect; it happened once before in 2001. Crops will wither. Workers will be laid off. Businesses will fail. Dust storms will carry away the topsoil. The ditches will go dry, and the critters that live on the ditch banks will disappear.

One of the most powerful statements we heard at our meeting was made by a Tulelake farmer who said the nights were already eerily quiet. No “tick-tick-tick” of the sprinklers. No sounds of birds, crickets or frogs.

It will take years to recover, if we can recover.

Will there be a single additional coho salmon or endangered sucker saved as a result of this pain? We don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone else does.

We would wager that everyone in that room wants to see those fish recover. To that end, our three county boards took action to promote collaboration up and down the Klamath River. We also stated our objections to an April 16 letter sent by some parties to the federal government that requested hundreds of millions of federal dollars for various actions or projects, with little backing explanation or justification. One of our key objections was the proposal’s call for a massive retirement of irrigation water rights, at a time when more than 90% of the water in the Upper Basin is already being dedicated to the needs of two fish species.

Some have mistakenly assumed our opposition to the proposal equates to opposing water for national wildlife refuges. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a tragedy that the refuges will go dry this year, and hundreds of species will suffer because their water has been lost to single-species management policies. The April 16 request for funding did not say a word about water for national wildlife refuges. Again, we objected to asking the federal government to sponsor the retirement of irrigation water rights. How does buying out farms when the farms don’t have any water help to solve any problem?

We have been meeting over the past several years with the same parties who wrote the April 16 letter. We have put time and money into that effort. We believe others shared our goal of collaborative and well-planned coordination to make the best use of resources for all of the basin’s important interests. No one is required to receive the counties’ consent before requesting federal funds, but the promotion of the April 16 letter implied a broad consensus. We believe that dramatic and very public proposals that affect the counties’ interests should not come as a surprise to the counties.

We will continue to work in a collaborative manner to bring large-scale solutions to the entire Klamath watershed. In the meantime, we grieve for our agricultural communities and our wildlife.

— Michael Kobseff and Brandon Criss are members of the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors. Ned Coe and Geri Byrne are members of the Modoc County Board of Supervisors and Derrick DeGroot is a Klamath County commissioner.





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