Think Out Loud

Some Klamath Basin farmers threaten extreme action as water crisis worsens

By Allison Frost (OPB)
June 3, 2021 5:38 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, June 3

A warning sign posted on the fence outside the Bureau of Reclamation's "A" Canal in Klamath Falls. Protestors have set up a tent adjacent to the irrigation headgates and are threatening to break in and turn on the water for agricultural users. Photo shared by reporter Erik Neumann, June 2, 2021.

A warning sign posted on the fence outside the Bureau of Reclamation's "A" Canal in Klamath Falls. Protestors have set up a tent adjacent to the irrigation headgates and are threatening to break in and turn on the water for agricultural users. Photo shared by reporter Erik Neumann, June 2, 2021.

Erik Neumann/JPR


The Klamath Basin is facing the worst drought in the state. As in years past, there’s not enough water to meet the demand for farmers, tribes and endangered fish and other wildlife. A group led by two farmers is threatening to break into the federally owned main irrigation canal. Twenty years ago some farmers facing this same water crisis did just that. We talk with Jefferson Public Radio reporter Erik Neumann about the rising tensions and what we might expect in the coming weeks.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. “Whiskey is for drinking” goes the old western phrase. “Water is for fighting.” It may be a hackneyed phrase, but obviously it gets at a deep truth... water is life for people, for fish, for cattle, for crops. And right now in the West, there is simply not enough of it. Huge swaths of the West are in severe drought right now. In Oregon, the Klamath Basin is facing the biggest shortage. Farmers who have gotten irrigation water from the Klamath project for decades will not get any water this year. It’s lead a small group of people to threaten to break into federal property to try to turn on the water themselves.

Erik Neumann has been reporting on this for Jefferson Public Radio. He joins us now with the latest. Erik Neumann, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Erik Neumann: Thanks.

Miller: Let’s start with what’s happening right now, then we can go backwards because the history is important. Two men who purchased land adjacent to the headgates of the irrigation project’s main canal say that they’re going to break into federal property and send water down the canals for farmers. Have they done that yet?

Neumann: As of noon on Thursday, they have not. They’ve been threatening to do this for the last week or two. They’ve been using the word “standoff” as something that could happen. In the meantime, they have this big tent set up right next to the head gates to where the water is distributed to the irrigators. They’re holding meetings at what they call a “water crisis info center.”

Miller: Most often when people break the law, they do not announce it in advance. People don’t say “I’m going to rob this bank tomorrow or sometime over the next week.” What have these men said?

Neumann: Their goal is to turn the water back on for irrigators that has been shut off this year. They argue that the ownership of the water that’s being stored in Upper Klamath Lake is unsettled. They say the best way to resolve this kind of an issue would be through the courts, if they could get some sort of a favorable ruling that would allow them to do this. But courts and lawsuits move pretty slowly and it’s really hot down in the Klamath basin right now. There are a lot of people who have planted crops and have cattle and are in a pretty desperate situation.

They’re saying that they’re prepared to do it themselves through civil disobedience.

Miller: What have federal authorities said publicly about this?

Neumann: Nothing so far that I’ve heard. I’m sure there’s conversation that I have not heard about this. But there’s been nothing that has been publicly said, at least in terms of the protest, that I’ve heard from Bureau of Reclamation... the water managers there or federal level law enforcement. It’s just been local law enforcement so far that’s really been mediating this situation. Representative Bentz is visiting Klamath Falls this week. He’s there either today or tomorrow, and he’s been sort of urging calm in the community. But that’s about the extent of the federal conversation.

Miller: You mentioned local law enforcement. There has been an interesting tack there, especially from Klamath County Sheriff Chris Kabir. What has he said and done?

Neumann: I was at one of the meetings that they held last Thursday, and Sheriff Carver was there. He said that he shares concerns about the water situation there. He said he shares some of the thoughts of the people that are really concerned. But he’s really taking a neutral stance in terms of the protests. His perspective was that would allow him to manage the situation better. He says that there are not federal agents there at the headgates because of a lot of behind-the-scenes communication that’s been going on between him and state law enforcement and federal law enforcement. He’s really trying to keep the peace right now in Klamath Falls and trying to get the message across that Klamath Falls is a peaceful community.

Miller: But it also seems like he has not told the men who have threatened to break federal law... he hasn’t told them not to do it. Did I read that correctly?

Neumann: He definitely didn’t say anything explicit like that at the meeting last week. He said that he talks with the two guys that purchased this land where the meetings are happening... he talked to them often. I haven’t seen anything that says he’s specifically discouraging them to do any kind of civil disobedience. But again, I’m sure those are private conversations.

Miller: You mentioned the word standoff earlier, because that’s one of the words that these men have have invoked, saying that one of their goals here, potentially, is to create a standoff. This brings us to Amon Bundy, who famously was one of the leaders of the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. What role has he played so far in this Klamath County situation?

Neumann: So far, Ammon Bundy has... there’s just been a mention of his name. He’s peripherally connected to some of the groups that have been down there. Last thursday, there was the state leader of a group called People’s Rights who came to talk to the crowd of folks from the Klamath Falls area about their concerns about constitutional rights being violated, things like that. But Amon Bundy has not made an appearance.


There’s obviously a lot of speculation about that, just because of the words standoff and the parallels to the Malheur occupation. He’s just been called by different media organizations, asking if he’ll be there. He said he would be there if asked, but that that has not happened. I will say there are local water officials who have warned about the problems in the community being hijacked for other causes by outside groups, which sounds like that could be something which sounds similar to the Malheur occupation. It’s kind of hard not to see some of these folks as potential outside agitators who are coming in to try to take advantage of this community that really is in crisis. It’s a largely agricultural community and this is going to have a lot of ripple effects between farmers and ranchers and a lot of other industries in the area.

Miller: So let’s, let’s get now to the broader picture here. The canal… the headwaters for that canal or one of the main infrastructure pieces preventing water from going down those canals. This is part of the larger Klamath project. Can you just remind us what this is?

Neumann: The Klamath project is a network of canals, reservoirs, water distribution systems that essentially takes water from Upper Klamath Lake and diverts it to hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land on the border of Oregon and California.

Water also goes to several national wildlife refuges down in that area. The water also continues on through California, going down the Klamath River to the coast. Throughout that entire pathway and network, they are different water needs that depend on what this year is a really limited supply.

Miller: How limited is it? How bad is the water situation this year?

Neumann: It’s the worst drought on record here. It’s the it’s the lowest amount of water that the Klamath Project has ever had in the 116 years that it’s been around. Essentially zero water is going to the majority of the irrigation farmers in the area. Then, like I said a minute ago, you have to also consider that there’s a series of endangered species, there’s national wildlife refuges, there are people with domestic wells where there are worries that those domestic wells could go dry this year as well.

Miller: Among the fish that are endangered there are sucker fish and salmon. What have you heard from tribes in the area... the Klamath, the Yurok, and the Karuk tribes who rely on socker fish or salmon for economic and cultural reasons.

Neumann: They’re all concerned about fish in their own tribal regions. In the Upper Klamath Lake, the Klamath tribe are focused on the suckers... the Lost River and Shortnose sucker. There’s low water in the lake, which they say is harming the spawning grounds. Further down river on the California side, there’s the Yurok and Karuk tribes, and in that area is where the Chinook and endangered Coho salmon live.

Earlier, I think in May, a biologist from the crew tribe noted that there was a 97% die off of juvenile salmon. Or, sorry, 97% infection of salmon with this bacteria that’s been killing them when they come up river. So they’re also really concerned about a massive fish kill. It’s a it’s a unique situation where you have endangered species even in different parts of the ecosystem that are fighting over water.

Miller: So let’s get a little bit of history here because it seems like, to some extent, history could be repeating itself. Can you remind us what happened in the Klamath basin in 2001?

Neumann: Sure. So, that was a similar year of drought as this year. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the water before the Klamath project said that there would be zero water available from Upper Klamath Lake for irrigators. From folks that I’ve spoken with who were around in 2001 watching the water situation then, they said it was really the first time there was a meaningful reduction in the amount of water that was going to go out to farmers. It was a super dramatic shock for the area. That was the year that irrigators did break through the gates into the area where the water is controlled and turn the water back on. And they did that three times over the course of the summer.

Miller: The two men at the heart of this potential new standoff who bought this land that abuts the part of the federal infrastructure for the irrigation project... my understanding is that they actually took part in that illegal action 20 years ago. What did they do?

Neumann: We have photos of them… or there was an Associated Press photo of them in 2001 turning the water back on during that event. They were there during the occupation or whatever you want to call it in 2001. This year they bought the property that is essentially where that protest took place in 2001, so they’re not trespassing on it. [It] is directly across from the headgates of the water canal.

Miller: How much support is there among other irrigators in the basis, people who desperately need water? How much support is there among so many other people for the idea of of breaking federal law breaching the canal?

Neumann: That part is really hard to tell from the different folks that I’ve spoken with. One thing that you can say in a very complicated topic is that everybody has different perspectives and it would be generalizing to say that everyone supports this kind of an action or that everyone is against it. At the meeting that I attended last Thursday, there were few farmers at the water crisis info center of the group of 100 or so people that were there. These guys that own the property will say that the farming community is really fractured and there are people that might be getting insurance money for their crops, so they don’t have an interest in being there.

But I would juxtapose that with last year when there was also a really severe drought, and there was a huge convoy protest that happened where there were miles of tractors that were driving through the area… people with signs... it was a pretty unifying event. So, there is a notable difference between the agricultural communities presence this year and last year.

Miller: Finally, does it seem like any kind of compromise is possible here or is the scarcity so great that there is no obvious solution?

Neumann: There is currently not a solution…. a meaningful solution... that has been talked about. I know Representative Bentz and across the border in California, LaMalfa, have both proposed aid packages. I believe also aid packages being proposed state level, but those are perceived as more of a band-aid solution. So this is really an issue that has been plaguing the region for years, and nobody has really been able to come up with a meaningful solution.

Miller: Erik Neumann, thanks very much for your time.

Neumann: Thank you for having me.

Miller: Erik Neumann is a reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.

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