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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Interior Secretary Bernhardt came to Klamath Falls to help find water solutions

by Liz Bowen, Klamath Basin Crisis Facebook page, Published in Siskiyou Daily News, Yreka, CA - Liz Writes Life Column July 15, 2020
The last time a U.S. Secretary of Interior visited the (Upper) Klamath Basin was in 2002. That was after the 2001 Biological Opinion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claimed the sucker fish in the Upper Klamath Lake needed more water, including all of the water designated for 1,400 farmers in the federal Klamath Project. Such a travesty!
Yep, that started a firestorm of frustration. The largest official Congressional Field Hearing, until that time, was held at the Events Center in Klamath Falls in June 2001. U.S. Congressional House and Senate leaders showed-up to see and hear why the man-made drought was so devastating and unconscionable.
Irrigation water in the federal project is re-used up to six times and wildlife refuges are included as systems of canals and ditches weave their way throughout the 230,000 acres and down to the Tule Lake Refuge. When the farmers lost their water, more than 450 species of wildlife also lost their habitat. Yes, wild animals and birds died.
So, after a year of meetings, haggling and Water Bucket Brigade rallies, federal agencies under President George W. Bush announced the farmers’ rightful water would be available for 2002.
On March 29, 2002, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman, arrived in Klamath Falls and opened the headgates of the major A canal. It was a momentous and happy day. I was there to see it, report on it and took photos. Like the farmers, I was hopeful they would continue to receive their water allocation for years to come.
Unfortunately, the water problems continued and actually became even more worrisome. Federal agencies manage the Endangered Species Act and there are several ESA-listed species that live in the Klamath area. Sucker fish are one and the coho salmon that utilize the Klamath River are another. Tribes and environmentalists demand water for those fish. Personally, I was shocked when the 450 wildlife species were ignored – just like the farmers.
By April 1st of each year, federal agencies weigh-in and the Bureau of Reclamation announces how much water the Klamath Project farmers will receive. Keep in mind that the irrigation water for the project is stored in Upper Klamath Lake, and other areas, and it is their legal water – reiterated by a court decision in 2013.
Everyone knew that we did not receive much snow or rain this past winter. Drought was imminent. So, including the water demands for ESA-listed fish, the Klamath farmers knew they were in for a reduced allocation. And it was. Greatly, at 40 percent of what is legally theirs. The farmers didn’t like it, but they figured out how much water they would receive and decided what fields to plant; then went to their banks and obtained loans to do the job.
In early May, Reclamation released a new edict. The farmers would lose another 20 percent. Oh, no! This meant that water would be shut-off to their growing crops -- by July 1st. Devastation! Farmers said it was worse than 2001, because back then they had not obtained the loans needed to plant their crops. How would they pay their 2020 loans with no product to sell?
To try and get noticed, farmers organized a “Shut Down and Fed Up” protest held May 29, 2020 with a 39-mile-long convoy of tractors, trucks, cars and pickups participating.
Doug LaMalfa, our CA. Dist. 1 U.S. Congressman, drove a big tractor and along with OR. Congressman, Greg Walden, they have been outspoken, engaged and a giant advocate for the farmers. Because of their many phone calls, official letters and dedication, along with the voices of farming groups, water districts and a unifying leadership from Siskiyou, Modoc and Klamath Counties, the Trump Administration heard about the 2020 travesty on the federal Klamath Project -- and responded.
So, 18 years since a DOI Secretary visited the Klamath Project, the current Secretary, David Bernhardt, came to Klamath Falls last week on July 9, 2020. Along with Bernhardt was the nation-wide Commissioner (head honcho) of Bureau of Reclamation, Brenda Burman. This was impressive folks. It was less than two months since the “Shut Down and Fed Up” rally!
In the morning meetings, various contenders were invited to share their information, concerns and possible solutions. Tribes and environmentalists were included. In the afternoon, an event for media was held. I was invited to attend this meeting, which was held in a farmer’s field where 70 years ago only sage brush grew. The 80-year-old farmer recalled his father worked long hours to cleared it and plant crops to feed a growing America. Sadly, last Thursday, the field was dry dirt. What a waste!
TV media asked questions of Congressmen LaMalfa and Walden. Then Secretary Bernhardt and Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman arrived and were interviewed in the barren dust surrounded by a still-life of huge tractors and farm equipment. Yes, American flags were proudly flying.
Our Siskiyou Co. Supervisor Board Chairman, Michael Kobseff, and Supervisor Brandon Criss, who’s district includes project farmers in Tulelake, also attended. For years, our county has been actively raising awareness that the water problem must be fixed.
Michael told me that the Klamath Basin is a billion dollar economy. Siskiyou is a part of this industry and a long-term solution must be established. He also gave praise to LaMalfa saying, “Hat’s off to Congressmen LaMalfa and Walden for working to get Secretary Bernhardt and Commissioner Burman here.”
LaMalfa continues to expound that bad science has led to decades of disregard for the irrigators’ water rights and their need for long-term solutions using the newest science on the suckers. He adds that the allocated-stored water does not belong to anyone other than Klamath Basin farmers and the bureaucracy has no right to take it away without compensation.
Congressman Walden said the current rules and regulations haven’t worked for salmon, suckers and certainly not for the farmers. Both congressmen were very appreciative and thanked Secretary Bernhardt and Commissioner Burman for coming out to hear the farmers and the history of the basin.
Secretary Bernhardt said the meetings were devoted to learning the issues and that solutions must be based in facts and law. Commissioner Burman told the group, “President Trump cares about rural America.” (Yay!)
Bernhardt said he will be meeting with President Trump on the situation and the president will ask, “What I am going to do about it?” and then tell Bernhardt to “Get-er done!”
Some solutions will require congressional decisions and possibly “lots of funding.” But, Bernhardt said that Trump is very clear. Problems are to be “figured out and then to do it!” (What an important concept!)
So, as in 2002, I am once again hopeful. It was gratifying to see such a quick response by the leaders of Interior and Reclamation. I felt they were genuine and wanted to hear all the issues.
Oh, thank you to all involved -- and may the legal water flow!
Liz Bowen began writing ranch and farm news, published in newspapers, in 1976. She is a native of Siskiyou County and lives near Callahan. Columns from the past can be found at: lizwriteslife.blogspot.com. Call her at 530-467-3515.
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