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BOR's Mikkelsen talks drought survival

by HOLLY DILLEMUTH, Herald and News Feb 9, 2018  

In what has been a week largely defined by water issues in the Basin, Alan Mikkelsen, deputy commissioner for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, spent his sixth visit to the Klamath Basin this week touring sites, such as the Klamath Tribes Research Station and hatchery in Sprague River, and meeting with tribal representatives and lower and upper basin irrigators.

Mikkelsen arrived in Klamath Falls on Tuesday with a full schedule packed with meetings; among them with the Klamath Water Users Association, the Klamath Tribes and BOR and Oregon Water Resource Department officials. (OWRD has been holding forums, too).

He finished his southern Oregon tour Thursday by meeting with Hoopa and Yurok Tribes at Central Point in the Rogue Valley.

Mikkelsen serves as a senior adviser to Secretary of the Department of Interior Ryan Zinke on issues relating to water resources in the West, including in the Klamath Basin.

Mikkelsen didn’t mince words Thursday morning about his thoughts on a potential drought in the Klamath Basin, though not yet declared by Klamath County Commissioners, and it’s projected impact to the region.

‘Surviving 2018’

“The focus of people in the Basin right now is surviving 2018,” Mikkelsen said, in an interview with the H&N. “That’s first and foremost on everybody’s mind. Long-term solutions are frankly a little bit on the back-burner right now.

“I think the challenges posed by 2018 are bringing people to an understanding that we really do need to be talking to each other, we really do need to be trying to figure out a path forward for the entire basin.

“In a large-scale conflict — for lack of a better term — you’re not going to have everybody on the same page. I don’t have any illusions about that.

“From an Interior perspective,” he added, “we are not going to allow the fishery to ‘blink out,’ and we are also going to do everything we can to make sure that we don’t have farm and ranch families ‘blinking out.’”

In response to concerns by some parties of the extinction of certain species of fish, Mikkelsen said: “We are going to do everything we can. We do not believe that we’re going to be subject to an extinction event this year with the fishery because we are doing everything we can to propagate and support the continued existence of an important cultural and environmental piece of this area.”

Faced with questions from some irrigators throughout the week regarding the Endangered Species Act requirements, Mikkelsen emphasized there is “no appetite” in Congress to make changes to the law.

“It’s been tried in Congress after Congress and it’s no fault of anybody on the Oregon delegation or anything like that,” Mikkelsen said. “There are a lot of urban congressmen, both parties, that do not have any desire to make substantive changes to the ESA. And so we have to follow the ESA and we will follow the ESA.”

Ag as a way of life

Mikkelsen, a Montanan and a fourth-generation farmer and rancher, spoke of a connection with the ag way of life.

“I can pull a calf, I can doctor a cow, I can bale hay,” Mikkelsen said, “... I can steer a wheel line, I can shoe and harness your horses, I can drive your team.”

Mikkelsen came out of retirement as a former fishing guide to take on his current post. But that doesn’t mean he’s a stranger to Washington, D.C. He has worked to elect two of Montana’s last three congressional members, and as a consultant in the nation’s capital.

Now he wears a reminder of his roots around his neck … in the form of a lanyard with bead work given to him from a tribe back home in Montana.

Mikkelsen smiled as he talked about also using the lanyard as a fishing guide before taking the position in Washington, D.C. His office has since been relocated to Denver, Colo.

He admitted the irony, however, of serving in his current position.

“I told him (Zinke) that I would never, ever, under any circumstance, go back to D.C. again because I had been there, done that,” Mikkelsen said, prior to eventually taking on the position.

As Zinke’s point person for water issues in the Klamath Basin, Mikkelsen shared his thoughts on the past, present, and future of ag in the Basin.

“All of the parties in this Basin recognize how serious the situation is this year and how serious the situation is going forward,” Mikkelsen said. “We don’t have the flexibility that we had in the past.

“From a federal water manager’s perspective, our hands are tied because of litigation with injunctive flows, the biological opinion,” he added. “The future is not going to look like the past, and if people want to have any control over what that future might look like, everybody needs to be engaged in these discussions. That includes tribes and irrigators.”


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