Twenty years after a shut-off of most irrigation water in the parched Klamath Project brought the competing needs of farmers, fishermen and tribes to a head, a new drought — and a fresh federally-ordered water shut-off — is triggering a sense of déjà vu.
Now, two Klamath Project irrigators with ties to radical activist Ammon Bundy have purchased private property located next to the headgates of the “A” Canal in Klamath Falls, which would normally deliver water to area farms. And along with local members of the Oregon chapter of People’s Rights, a group founded by Bundy in 2020, they’ve set up an information center and gathering place to talk to the public about the brewing water crisis in the Klamath Basin.
On May 12, as the ongoing drought led to low water levels in Upper Klamath Lake, federal managers shut off water from the lake that irrigators use for watering crops and livestock. The move was made to protect two federally-protected fish species that the Klamath Tribes consider integral to their cultural heritage and survival during the worst recorded drought in Klamath Basin history.
In April, Dan Nielsen and Grant Knoll jointly bought several privately-owned lots adjoining the “A” Canal for a total price of $30,000, according to a Klamath County deed of sale. Both men are landowners and Project irrigators. Knoll is also a member of the Klamath Irrigation District board of directors, which oversees a majority of Klamath Project land.
A large red and white canvas tent was set up on the property on May 14, where people are painting signs and posting them along the asphalt path along Nevada St. above the property, with messages such as “Ammon Bundy coming soon” and “Tell Pharaoh let our water feed the Earth.”
Port-a-potties and a campfire have been set up on the site, as well as a motorhome and camper. Several vehicles are parked there as well. Trump 2024 and American flags are displayed, as well as information about various lawsuits involving the water crisis.
Nielsen told JPR he and Knoll decided to buy the property so they have a place to gather where they can’t be “run off” by the federal government.
The location next to the headgates is significant, as well.
“The only thing separating us from the headgates is a chain-link fence,” Nielsen said, adding, “It’s good access, all right.”
The headgates are essentially like a massive spigot that controls the flow of water stored in Upper Klamath Lake and releases it to farms and ranches via a network of canal ditches throughout the Klamath Reclamation Project.
In 2001, after most irrigation water was cut off to protect endangered fish, thousands of demonstrators formed a symbolic “bucket brigade,” passing buckets of water from Lake Ewauna and emptying them into the “A” Canal that runs through Klamath Falls. Over the course of several days in early July 2001, protesters cut and climbed the fence to the headgates and three times forced open the gates to allow water into the canal. Federal marshals showed up 10 days later and didn’t leave until Sept. 11.
When Nielsen was asked if he or others would take similar actions in coming days or weeks to enter the federal land next door, he wouldn’t directly answer.
“We’re gonna do what we gotta do,” he said.
Nielsen and Knoll have long been vocal advocates for irrigators’ water and land rights. Both took part in a demonstration along the Link River Dam in late April 2020, when farmers protested the amount of stored water in Upper Klamath Lake being sent down the Link River to help juvenile coho salmon.
The Bundy Connection
Nielsen hosted a large $25-a-plate private dinner for Ammon Bundy in Klamath Falls last summer. Nielsen had also met Bundy at a similar event in Siskiyou County in 2018. Knoll has also met Bundy.
Bundy led an armed group to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon in 2016. He was later acquitted on charges related to the 41-day standoff with federal authorities. The standoff resulted in one death; LaVoy Finicum, who was among those occupying the refuge. Finicum was killed by law enforcement during an attempted arrest.
Bundy also participated in an armed standoff with federal agents in Nevada in 2013 over his father Cliven Bundy’s refusal to pay fees for grazing his cattle on federal land.
Ammon Bundy has recently announced plans to run for governor of Idaho in 2022, even though he has been temporarily barred from the Idaho Statehouse building after trespassing the property.
Dan Nielsen said he is in regular contact with Bundy.
“We talk to him regularly,” he told JPR.
Concerns Over Tactics
Nielsen also said he doesn’t feel supported by Klamath Water Users Association, which represents many of the irrigation districts in the Project.
Ben DuVal, president of the Association and also a full-time farmer in Tulelake, is aware of the “water crisis info center” but had not seen it as of Friday.
DuVal said the headgates are a focal point of the Project and setting up next door will effectively draw attention to the irrigator’s cause. He said he can appreciate the enthusiasm and willingness of Nielsen and Knoll to want to lead this effort to stand up for water rights for irrigators.
But DuVal sees the effort as being led by a small segment of the Klamath Project agricultural community.
“Most of the people that depend on the Klamath Project for a living this year don’t have money to go out and buy land just to set up a big tent like that,” DuVal added. “It’s a little ridiculous in my opinion ... We don’t have much time for theatrics.”
DuVal said he has some concerns about the effort.
“I don’t want anybody to do anything stupid or … you know, cause a problem, a civil problem. That’s just not going to be productive in the long-run. But, people also have a right to protest.”
DuVal said he knows that emotions are running high and shares frustrations about the zero water allocation by the Bureau of Reclamation and the tumultuous year being experienced Klamath Project-wide.
DuVal hadn’t heard of the possibility of outside actors such as Bundy coming to Klamath Falls, but said Friday that could detract from local irrigators having their own voices heard.
Nielsen said anyone wanting to learn more is welcome to stop by the tent most days of the week.
People’s Rights Oregon is asking for volunteers to staff the tent, which is highly visible from Nevada St. in Klamath Falls.
Organizers are spreading the word about the “water crisis info center” on their Facebook page, and promoting events with speakers who assert that farmers are protected by state rights and the U.S. Constitution.
Another gathering is planned at the tent on Thursday, May 27.