Think Out Loud

Klamath Basin drought: Coalition of the Willing

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
July 14, 2021 4:58 p.m. Updated: July 14, 2021 9:05 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, July 14

This week, Think Out Loud has traveled to the Klamath Basin to have conversations with people affected by the severe drought in the region. People calling themselves the “Coalition of the Willing” have been meeting for years now to try to find common ground on water issues in the basin. We talk with two of them. Dan Keppen is executive director of the Family Farm Alliance and Chrysten Lambert is the Oregon director of Trout Unlimited. They both work on the coalition as private citizens.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller, we’re coming to you once again from the Klamath Union High School in Klamath Falls; we are in the Klamath Basin all week focusing on competing needs for water when there is not enough to go around. Later in the hour, we’re going to hear from an alfalfa farmer in Tule Lake who is also the President of the Klamath Water Users’ Association. We start right now with an effort to build consensus and compromise in a conflicted Basin, a group formed about four years ago, it’s made up of a diverse set of stakeholders, Tribes, Irrigators, members of conservation groups and local governments. They call themselves the Coalition of the Willing, or just the Coalition. Their hope is to forge a sustainable future in the Basin by finding common ground. I’m joined now by two members of the group, Dan Keppen is the Executive Director of the Family Farm Alliance. Chrysten Lambert is the Oregon Director of Trout Unlimited. I should note they are both joining us as private individuals, not as representatives of their day jobs. Chrysten Lambert and Dan Keppen, Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Chrysten Lambert: Thanks for having us.

Dan Keppen: Thanks.

Miller: Thanks. Chrysten Lambert, first. Why did these various parties get together about four years ago?

Lambert: It was on the heels of a prior comprehensive agreement called the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement failed to find traction in Congress and ultimately wasn’t passed. But that was a series of actually three agreements, that a pretty broad set of stakeholders had agreed on to support water sharing, but also a variety of other things, including economic investment for some of the rural counties and the tribes, but ultimately it didn’t make it over the finish line. And when that fell apart, things really fractured across the Basin and communities and people kind of went into their individual bunkers and weren’t in good dialogue with each other. And so it was really an opportunity for people to come back, reconnect, understand each other as individuals and their needs and try to have conversations that are outside of the court system.

Miller: Dan Keppen. It’s worth actually digging a little bit into what the KBRA, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement  would have meant. This was the work of about close to a decade of negotiations with a lot of different parties, as Chrysten was just saying. And then in 2015 and 2016, Congress did not vote to fund it and it dissolved, and most of what was going to happen didn’t happen. We’ll talk about dam removals actually on the show at the end of this week, because that is going forward. But what would have happened this year, for example, if the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement had been funded and implemented?

Keppen: Well, in terms of the Klamath Project Irrigators, they would have water, most importantly. This would have been considered a drought year under the KBRA, so it would’ve been a very special sort of condition as far as figuring out how much water would be negotiated, but ballpark estimate is roughly 300,000 acre feet would be going to the Klamath Project right now and right now there’s really zero water except for what Klamath Drainage District is taking out.

Miller: So what would that have meant for the water going down the river for salmon?

Keppen: Well, the whole idea of the KBRA was looking at sort of a Watershed-Wide approach to all the stressors that are affecting the fish. So, roughly in a year like this, the water had been split a third, a third, a third for water behind the lake, the suckers, water downstream for Coho salmon, a third of the water basically going to the Irrigation Project, but lots of other dollars are going to be put out there to do other things that would help the fish restoration projects, things up in Upper Klamath Lake that would also affect the fish in ways that don’t necessarily tie to the flows.

Miller: Have you heard misgivings from people this year - who, I mean within the project, who would have gotten water this year if the KBRA had actually been funded, misgivings from people who maybe didn’t support the KBRA in the past, who are saying, I really wish this were in place right now?

Keppen: Yes, absolutely. Honestly, what’s happening this year might be, unfortunately, the only silver lining that comes out of this drought is it shows what we could have had, had the Agreement been in place. And the other important thing associated with the agreement is you had Tribes, NGOs, Irrigators, two states working together, going back to Washington, D. C. to lobby for things that had a benefit for everybody. And right now, as Kristen said, we’ve had this sort of fracturing, since Congress didn’t get this thing authorized, and everybody’s back in their own camp, sort of fighting each other in the courts and in the newspapers and in the media.

Miller: So, I have seen Chrysten, that you have said and Dan said in the past, members of the coalition that even though the dissolving of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement was the impetus for these groups coming together, this Coalition is not a replacement for the negotiations that led to the KBRA. They’re different. So what’s different about your Coalition’s work right now?

Lambert: Well, the times are different, things have changed since then. People talk a lot about water allocation in the Klamath, but there’s a lot more needed for the basin to recover fish and provide security for Tribes and Farmers and Ranchers. And it comes down to things like water quality, habitat restoration, economic investment, forestry, and so, you know, specifically the dams are, as you referenced earlier, slated and very close to moving forward to come out. So that’s a game changer in terms of what’s needed for water sharing and other investments. There’s also a number of stakeholders that are participating in this coalition that weren’t necessarily supporters of the KBRA and some of those include people that were very opposed to dam removal, but setting that aside in a different space allows people to focus on other issues. Another big thing that’s changed since the time of that negotiation is that Oregon has gone through the adjudication process. And so the water rights on all of the tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake and within Upper Klamath Lake have been determined essentially. And that determination included recognizing the Klamath Tribes have Time Immemorial, or the most senior water rights on the system. And so that changes how water is allocated above Upper Klamath Lake and within the lake. So, a number of key shifts have happened since those conversations, which doesn’t negate the importance, if anything increases the importance, of these stakeholders coming together. But it’s a different conversation today.

Miller: Dan Keppen, what’s come so far from the Coalition’s work? Are there concrete places you’ve arrived at that show some version of, if not total, then widespread agreement, in other words, have you made progress?

Keppen: Well, I think coming out of the failure of the settlement agreements to get authorized in Congress, there were some bad feelings all around, you know, and it took some time to sort of build some trust and develop relationships with the new people at the table. And that’s a factor here, too, a lot of the folks that were involved with the original settlements are no longer with us or they moved on. And so it’s developing new relationships between the various parties...

Miller: Even though it wasn’t that long ago, some people have died or moved away, and you have new parties who don’t have the kind of hard won personal relationships…

Keppen: Right….

Miller: ...that were built over the course of…

Keppen: ... 10 years, basically.

Miller: Right, So that’s a factor. So, I mean, I read an article from, I guess it was the Fall of 2019 and Dan, you were quoted in a fair amount, saying you’re hopeful, you know, this was early on in this new coalition coming together and there was this fateful line near the end of it saying that all the parties are going to come back together in February or March of 2020 for negotiations to continue, obviously, February and March of 2020 were, when everything stopped, what did that mean for your work?


Lambert: It certainly delayed the work; meeting through Zoom is not, as everyone knows, the same as meeting in person and a lot of other things just can’t happen. At the end of the day this kind of work really is about those personal relationships and trust building, There’s so much on the table and if you’re simply going to the courts and asking for an answer, you get a very narrow answer to one specific issue that doesn’t address this broad spectrum of things that we need to do and to get there, you really have to be able to look people in the eye and have those conversations and as much happens over dinner, drinks, after the meeting, as really happens within the meetings. And as Dan mentioned, a lot of people have passed away, moved on. You have intergenerational transfers of farms and ranches and re-establishing that type of cohesiveness takes some time and investment. So I’m really pleased that we’re in a place now where we can resume in person meetings and dialogue and continue to learn about everyone’s needs so that we can build something that’s durable for the future.

Miller: Where do you think there’s common ground right now?

Lambert: I think there is common ground that what we’re doing right now doesn’t work. Every single party in this basin is suffering whether you’re concerned about your cultural resources as a tribe, whether you’re concerned about your farming or ranching income, or if you’re like our organization and very focused on the fisheries here, every single stakeholder is in a true state of disaster today. And so I think that commonality of suffering, there isn’t, one party won, this year, and someone else lost. Instead, we’re all suffering and it’s time to make things better for the future.

Miller: Yesterday, we went to the so-called Water Crisis Info Center. It’s a big tent put up on a piece of land that was purchased because it’s adjacent, it abuts the head gates of the ‘A’ Canal that is fed by the Upper Klamath Lake. It’s essentially a protest against the way the Bureau of Reclamation has been managing water this year. And in previous years, the folks who bought the land, including Dan Nielsen, have threatened to try to open up the head gates themselves. We talked to Nielsen yesterday, I want to play both of you. Just a portion of what he said:

Nielsen: The project was built in 1905, you know, and it was built for droughts like this. This reservoir has plenty of water and it should be able to run this project. It’s got enough water in it right now to run the project. But the Bureau has been regulating the water in town, who gets what; they’ve been taking it, taking more and more from the farmers, and giving it all for the fish. So it’s gotta come a time when people got to put a stop to it somehow or another. But you can’t just take 100% of the water and run it down the river for the fish. That doesn’t make sense. They’re basically stealing our water. The water is adjudicated. It’s needed to the land. We own the water in the reservoir. So, why wouldn’t you take it? These farmers, the rich farmers are all willing to negotiate and trade water for, they want to make a long term plan, but they want to negotiate and trade water off. Why would you take and trade your water? You own it. So why would you give it up? It doesn’t make sense. Next thing they’ll come and want part of your land and you’re gonna just give them part of your land just because they tell you to don’t make sense to me.

Miller:  Dan Keppen, One of the things that struck me in talking to Dan Nielson is this overall view that to some extent, maybe to a great extent, compromise is capitulation and a kind of existential threat to life as he knows it as a farmer. How common do you think that point of view is in the basin?

Keppen: How many people did you see out at the head gates?

Miller: He was there, and then one more person came. You’re saying that’s your answer, that it’s not common because nobody else was at the tent.

Keppen: Well, I’m saying, and I don’t blame these people for making a protest and drawing attention to this issue. And the arguments you make on the surface make sense. But it’s so much more complicated. And many of us have been doing this for decades. I guess I know from experience that it’s much more complicated than just private property rights. It’s the Endangered Species Act, it’s Tribal Trust Obligations, two states that are involved, many courts, Federal courts, not just State courts and state legal arguments. So ultimately we kept losing, right, and other sides kept losing. And that’s sort of what led to this idea. After the fish died in 2002, after the water got shut off the first time, 2001, people came together and said enough of this, let’s try to come up with a solution where we’re all working together and benefit the fish. So, it’s two different ways of thinking. I don’t blame those people for, for protesting. There’s a lot of people hurt in this community right now, but there’s a lot of others that feel like the best solution is sitting down with a diverse group of people to come back to the solution that helps all of us so it’s not winners and losers.

Miller: Chrysten Lambert my understanding is that your family, which operates a cattle ranch in the Wood River in the Upper Basin, that your family’s experience has affected the way you think about water use more broadly. What have you seen in your own family? And how has that affected the way you think about the broader Basin?

Lambert: Well, I think exactly as Dan was just saying, most people in this Basin believe that all of these stakeholders have a right to exist and have value and benefit to community and society as a whole. And so my experience, yeah, I come from a long multigenerational agricultural family. I have uncles that are fishing guides. I really believe firmly that you can have a strong environmental ethic. You can manage resources and steward them for the future. You can respect Tribal Treaty Obligations and you can farm and ranch; can every single one of those issues have 100% of what they want? No, that’s not possible. There isn’t enough water there, but can everyone have enough to be able to make a future and move forward? Most definitely. And that’s where we, I just continue to emphasize, it’s more than just how much water is where, it’s the quality of the water and the quality of the habitat and how we manage our forests and other resources that matter as well.

Miller: Dan Keppen, this drought is so severe that no group is getting what they see as nearly enough water this year. Not fish or crops or birds, not the people behind the tribal members or ranchers or refuge managers or commercial fisherman. Do you think that the collective pain this year will drive a further wedge between groups or bring them together?

Keppen: Well, I testified before the House Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee here, about a month and a half ago, and I addressed this very issue. The only silver lining that’s going to come out of this drought, which is the worst drought I’ve ever seen in 30 years of doing this, is that it’s going to shine a light on the importance of what needs to be done. It includes managing our forests better, it includes having more flexibility and water management and importantly, it includes collaboration. We need to be working together on these sorts of things and there’s models for that. The settlement agreements that were agreed on before that didn’t get ratified by Congress. And what’s happening to Yakima Basin is another example of how tribes and water users and the state can get together to do things that help the fish and help the communities. So, you know, that’s, that’s sort of how I see it right now, I think there is a silver lining in this drought and it may provide a catalyst for us to get together, and we got to resolve something here quickly, we can’t another year of this and a lot of people are gonna be gone,

Miller: Chrysten Lambert, what kind of speed do you see as possible right now, if you’re talking about not another year like this, do you think this coalition will come up with something tangible before the next water year?

Lambert: I certainly hope so. It’s going to take hard work and dedication and people taking some personal risks. But again, that’s where the trust comes to have the social license to come to a table and really work in a way that benefits all of the stakeholders here in this basin…

Miller: The social license, meaning that they will feel that they’re not going to be ostracized by their neighbors?

Lambert: Exactly.

Miller: That’s what Social License is.

Lambert: Correct.

Miller:  that they’ll be talked to, in the diner?

Lambert: Yes, absolutely. And it really takes a confidence that you’re working towards a better future to be able to do that. This is hard, I mean people are suffering in every single place around here and when you’re suffering, it’s hard to take a leap of faith, it’s hard to take a risk on something that’s unknown, but it’s also the only option we have here.

Miller: Chrysten Lambert and Dan Keppen, Thanks very much.

Lambert / Keppen: Thank you. Thank you.

Miller: Chrysten Lambert is the Oregon Director of Trout Unlimited, Dan Keppen is the Executive Director of the Family Farm Alliance. They are both on their own time as private citizens, working as a part of this coalition, trying to find common ground on seemingly intractable water issues in the Klamath basin trying to find common ground on seemingly intractable water issues in the Klamath Basin.

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