Think Out Loud

Klamath Basin drought: Irrigators

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
July 14, 2021 4:58 p.m. Updated: July 14, 2021 9:06 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. As a result of the water crisis, many farmers in the Klamath Basin have needed to make difficult choices and are unable to irrigate portions of their land. We hear from Ben DuVal, an Alfalfa farmer and president of the Klamath Water Users Association. He shares details on how the water crisis is affecting producers in the region.


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 coming to you from Klamath Falls. We are continuing our deep dive into the water shortage in the Klamath Basin. We turn now to Ben DuVal. He is a farmer from Tule Lake, California and the President of the Klamath Water Users Association. We visited his farm yesterday, I asked him what he grows.

Ben DuVal: So we grow alfalfa hay, wheat, some barley and raise registered Black Angus cattle.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for what we’re looking at here?

DuVal: Right here next to my house this year we have a dry field and unfortunately it’s one that I’ve invested a lot of money into in the last couple of years. I was able to purchase the neighbor’s property and combine it with mine in order to make it a more efficient field to farm and to irrigate. The neighbor’s place was under, because nobody had ever bought it, just a farm  and had an older, inefficient flood irrigation system on it. And I always knew that if I combined the two, I could put a center pivot irrigation system on it in order to conserve water. So we’ve done that over the last couple of years and did it all on our own

Miller: Meaning without a bank loan?

DuVal: We have a loan on the equipment. The center pivot is about $68,000. So you know, large capital purchases like that, we generally finance.

Miller: But did the work on your own?

DuVal: Did the work on our own. Didn’t use any government incentives to do it because I wanted to do it. It was such a good project, I needed to do it on my time schedule and get it done quick. And those kind of processes can take time. So did it all on our own, unfortunately, got it all put together this year and no water to pump through it. So, we’ve focused the limited amount of water that we have on crops that are permanent that are already in the ground, like our alfalfa and wheat that was planted last fall.

Miller: So there’s nothing growing here right now?

DuVal: No.

Miller: So you went through all that work and money, investment...,

DuVal: Invested a lot of money, in order to try and do the right thing to conserve water and help the entire watershed. And I get a loan on the pivot, I got to make that payment every year.

Miller: The bank doesn’t care.

DuVal: The bank doesn’t care if I’m using it or not.

Miller: Does the insurance care? I mean, can you, can you get any money and, well, we can talk about government relief in a bit, but, but is there insurance that kicks in if you, if you can’t actually make money from the land?

DuVal: Not really. None of the insurance is enough to make you whole. Even the crops that are well insured. It’s just enough to keep operations going for another year.

Miller: Have you gotten any water this year?

DuVal: So I’ve been fortunate. All the land that we own is in an area at the very south end of the basin, here where we do have some groundwater resources. I don’t have any wells, for a farm our size, where we have 80 acres in one parcel and 80 acres, two miles down the road in another parcel, to invest that amount of money into, drilling a well and putting a pump on it and everything. It’s extremely expensive and it’s not viable for a farm this size. But I’ve been very fortunate that all my neighbors that have made that investment and put wells are great to work with, they’re pumping water for me. So where we can, we’ve been able to get water.

Miller: How does that work? Because I mean, that seems like a real interesting combination between generosity of neighbors slash friends. But also, I mean every drop they give you is a drop that they can’t have,

DuVal: Right, and we’re all very concerned about sustainability. How much, how much water is there that we can pump and you know, we don’t want to over tax that resource because, you know, anything you do on the farm is a long term investment and we’re all here for the long term and want to see that resource used in a sustainable manner for everyone.

Miller: Have you gotten any federal relief money? Is the money that’s been talked about? I mean, is it going to come your way?

DuVal: So not yet. They’re working on getting it on the ground and anything that hasn’t had irrigation water applied to it this year should be eligible for some, but a lot of us got very limited irrigation water on some fields, not enough to make anywhere near full production or, you know, even cover our costs. But I mean, you’re optimistic, you’re wanting to do the best you can at the moment and hope it gets better. And so far this year, nothing’s gotten better. So we’ve applied the limited amount of irrigation water on most of the crops and they, like I said, they’re not gonna make anywhere near full crop, but that also keeps us from being eligible for a lot of those programs. And hopefully some of them will, will be in such a way that, you know, even limited irrigation where you still had had a major loss that you’re still eligible for some of that. It’s important, especially for a lot of the younger farmers like myself that are, you know, still trying to get established in order to keep us farming.

Miller: How old are you?

DuVal: 40 years old.

Miller:  And 40 years old is a younger farmer?

DuVal: Yes, we don’t have many younger farmers around here after 2001. We just didn’t have a lot of people that were optimistic about coming back. And now we actually do have a younger group that’s moved into the area and came back to family farms and they’re trying to make a go of it. And that’s the worst thing about a water crisis like this is the people that are not, not as well established  are the people that they generally feel the brunt of it.

Miller: You’re one of those people who came back to a family farm, right? I mean you were saying just before I turned the recorder on that you bought this farm from your Grandfather. What are your memories of this from 30 years ago when you were a 10 year old here?

DuVal: Well, there was never a water issue then, all the irrigation canals would be completely full of water. all the drain ditches that have water in them. The wildlife refuge would, I mean,  [we] never talked about water problems out there. As long as the project had water, the refuge had water and there’s plenty of water moving through the entire system. Everything was green, it was vibrant. The school, just up the road where I went to school in the late eighties with 250 other kids, you guys drove by, probably didn’t even notice it, but Newell school, it’s been being closed for over 10 years now and the windows were boarded up and there’s grass growing in the parking lots. And that’s a, that’s a direct result of the attrition that we’ve seen on farms as a result of this water crisis and every acre is still getting farmed, but people are growing crops that are less value. You know, it used to be a lot of potatoes here, there was a potato packing shed right here in Newell that employed over 150 people and these people have switched to alfalfa like I’ve done because it’s better at utilizing maybe not a full supply of irrigation water and kind of self insuring our farm against against risk. It also doesn’t provide the dollars back into the community, like those higher value root crops do.

Miller: So it makes more sense for a drier climate and a drier Basin. But it’s meant that part of the community has evaporated.

DuVal: Yeah. I mean we, we’re a lot of grain now, wheat and barley and they can, they can make a crop on only a couple of irrigations, but in a normal year, this year was extremely dry and we didn’t have that winter moisture. So we’re seeing a hit from that. But those kind of crops, they produce a couple hundred dollars an acre, in gross income, as compared to a potato crop that would be several thousand dollars an acre. And most of that money, the farmer doesn’t see that in his income. Most of that money is spent, the difference, in the community. Your additional fertilizer costs, and seed costs and the labor that goes into it. A guy can run a fairly large grain farm, only a person or two and, and hay the same way, potatoes, You just need more employees, you need more people working on it.

Miller: More of a local economy?

DuVal: More of the local economy. And you look at  our local towns here and the ones that are still surviving have been on life support ever since 2001. It’s really sad to see that in my lifetime, the way it’s changed. Right up the road, I mean there was a store, there was a restaurant, there was a school that was open and now everything is closed.


Miller: What’s your vision for how to make a more sustainable Basin for farmers like you, for ranchers, for fish, for the Wildlife Refuge? I mean for a better future?

DuVal: So what I envision is, I don’t feel that any party in this should win. Like this year the river is winning, the entire project is not diverting any water this year, the river is taking it all and that’s not right. So what I envision is just some balance to it. There is a way to have sustainable farms here on the Klamath Project, and there’s ways to have a sustainable, healthy fishery on the river. And we need to look at things that maybe, the main focus has always been on more water and what can we do to enhance that fishery without more water? And I think we need to look at how this system operated more naturally, and I’m really concerned about how far we’ve gotten from mimicking the natural system here.

Miller: How do you mimic the natural system, when it has for 115 years been so controlled by people?

DuVal: Sure.

Miller: I mean, we’re talking about basically, which is it’s canals and ditches and dams and you know, all and just, total human control.

DuVal: I think you have to go back to what I was talking about, how this is one of the worst droughts that we’ve ever seen. Record low inflows. And we have a full river going down the Klamath River, right now.

Miller: I should say that later this week, we’re gonna talk a lot more about some of these issues about dam removal and we’ll go to one of the dams. It is slated to be removed starting in just two years. And we’re also going to talk about endangered salmon in the Klamath River, that will be for the show on Friday. I want to run by you, some of the things we’ve heard in the last couple days when we talked to the Klamath Tribes Council Member Clayton Dumont. And then after that to the Environmentalist Jim McCarthy, they were pretty clear about what they think needs to happen and they talked to have different perspectives. But they both said that one of the things that has to happen in this basin is we need fewer people using irrigation water, we need fewer farmers and ranchers using water in this basin. What goes through your mind when you hear something like that?

DuVal: Considering, like I said, that every acre that I used to farm was under underwater until this Reclamation Project was built, that water didn’t disappear, that water is stored in Upper Klamath Lake. To me, it seems like we’re being unfairly singled out for, in my opinion, managing one of the most efficient, incredible irrigation projects in the world. I mean, this area should not be known for its water problems or for being, you know, them saying that there’s just too many demands on the water. There’s not too many demands on the water. There’s too many competing demands on the water because everybody wants more. And again, I think we need to go back to a balanced approach. You know, I don’t think that in a year like this, the river should be running bank full and I don’t think that my farm should be getting zero irrigation water. I think that we need some balance there, and we need to look at all the benefits that irrigated ag in this area provides to the communities, to the wildlife refuges, to the amount of private habitat that we ordinarily provide on our private lands. Those ditches that I was talking about that would ordinarily be full of water, you know, there’s an incredible amount of habitat on that. We’ve looked at doing some wetland restoration habitat stuff on some of our land and unfortunately we need water to do that kind of stuff.

Miller: Jim McCarthy. When we talked to him from Water Watch, he said that he wants there to be the possibility of what he called an equitable buyout for willing sellers among farmers and ranchers, not forcing people to sell their own private land, but public money, U.S. Taxpayer money, giving a fair price to people to encourage them if they want to sell. Now it remains to be seen if Congress would actually allocate that money. They haven’t in the past, for farmers in this basin. If they did, what do you think would happen?

DuVal: I think we would need to be very thoughtful about how we approach that as a community because one of the advantages that I see in farming in this area is we have the community resources to support agriculture. We have enough of a concentration here that we have the businesses that we need to support us. And as soon as you start taking irrigated land out of production, then you start changing that dynamic. You start changing the economics of whether or not it’s viable for business to be here.

Miller: Like would there be somebody here to fix your pivot irrigation system if it breaks?

DuVal:  Exactly. There’s enough of us in this area to support competition between dealers to do that kind of stuff and that’s a good thing, it’s healthy for the market and if  the services that we need- whether it’s fertilizer or seed or custom farming businesses. We got a lot of neighbors around here that help each other out and we’re able to do that because we’re all economically viable operations. And you start taking away from the core group of irrigated acres that make up the project and you start taking away from the entire community really fast.

Miller: Obviously this is a historically bad year, but we’re also, all the people who study climate models in this Basin, they say that we can expect more fires, we can expect hotter summers and we can overall expect less snowpack and, and more drought. Maybe not as bad as this year again, you know, in the next five years. But, when you look at the models, it doesn’t look good. Things are going to get worse. What goes to your mind when you hear that?

DuVal: Well, it’s frightening for one, did I pick the right thing? I mean, this is how I provide for my family, is by living and working here. My entire family is vested in it. My crew consists of my wife and my two daughters and they enjoy doing it and they have a love for it.

Miller: Wait. That’s your whole crew? 160 acres. You, your wife and your 12 and 14 year old daughter’s?

DuVal: Correct.

Miller: How can you farm 160 acres?

DuVal: Oh, no, we farm almost 500.

Miller: Okay. But that’s your crew?

DuVal: That’s the crew.

Miller:  Because your 12 year old is on the tractor sometimes?

DuVal: Yeah, quite a bit.

Miller: Okay. So but you’re saying you hear about the possibility of continuing bad droughts and bad years and it makes you worried?

DuVal: Right. But also I  am optimistic that this is why we had the vision to build these Reclamation Projects. This is an incredibly drought resilient system, if it’s managed in a balanced fashion. The problem is we’ve taken all the balance out of it and we go from whether it’s human nature or what, where we go from one extreme to everything is about resource development and maximizing the amount of irrigated acres that we can do. That was a whole mantra back in the 50s and 60s and it was more development. They were talking about expanding this irrigation project almost double what it is now, and we’ve changed that now. We’re back to a different extreme where all the water is going to maintain salmon habitat and I know there’s no right or wrong, it’s just we need to balance that and not go from one extreme to the next.

Miller: I’m wondering if you think that you and other people in the ag community also could and should change behaviors.

DuVal: We have. And actually that’s one of my big complaints. The place we’re sitting right now was my grandfather’s farm. He got this farm in 1948, in the 1949 Homestead Drawing after World War II. He was a veteran of World War II in this area. As they drained the lake, they parceled it out for homesteads to World War II vets and he was one of the lucky ones, drew a homestead in the last drawing and my grandfather farmed in this area until 2001 and retired in 2001. He wouldn’t recognize the way we irrigate today, the practices that we have and how tightly we manage the water today. He wouldn’t understand that. Just the amount of infrastructure and the amount of money that we spend just to shepherd that water around and utilize that resource to the best of our ability. He wouldn’t recognize it. And that’s something that the Klamath Project has always been kind of on the forefront of, is doing that. There’s a few areas where it still works and it’s still actually as efficient of irrigation practices, you can see, but you don’t see the amount of flood irrigation on the areas where it doesn’t work anymore.

Miller: That used to be super common.

DuVal: Yeah, that was the norm, that was the only way they had to irrigate, you know, they started changing over to sprinklers in the late 70s and in the 80s and this area rapidly adapted to that. And I go, one of my favorite things to do is to go to other irrigated areas in the west and look at how other people do things. One thing that they’ve that I’ve seen is as they’ve had water issues come along or more water that needs to be allocated to environmental purposes. Generally, a lot of those projects can conserve their way out of a problem because they can line canals and they can change from flood irrigation to sprinklers.

Miller: Lining so that water doesn’t seep into cracks, and become groundwater.

DuVal: Right, and is lost to deep percolation.

DuVal: Klamath Project is a little different because we’re farming on an old lake bed, so we don’t lose any of that water. Any water that spilled on my farm was picked up in the drain ditch and repumped a mile down the canal and utilized again on another farm. That’s why the Klamath Project is already one of the most efficient irrigation projects in the world. Our irrigation efficiency is about 93%. So as a result, we don’t have that flexibility to conserve our way out of this problem, we can’t conserve 40% of the water here. If we want to conserve 40% of the water, we’re gonna be putting farms out of business.

Miller: How much have tensions over water filtered into daily life?  If you go into Klamath Falls, you go to a supermarket or just interact with people who maybe aren’t from the ag community, are the tensions visible?

DuVal: I wouldn’t say that I’ve seen tensions being visible. I’ve had some meetings in the last few months with some of the Tribes and nobody is in a good place right now. I don’t think anybody thinks that they’re coming out ahead this year. It’s terrible drought. Everybody’s suffering. I mean, the Klamath Tribes are, their species is facing extinction and they would like more water, but realistically, in the years where they’ve had more water it hasn’t helped. And so I think that there’s a lot of communication problems, but I wouldn’t say that people are visibly upset with each other or anything. It’s kind of, you know, we’re all in this together, nobody’s coming out ahead, nobody’s winning. I think it’s a challenge that we’re all going to have to take on, if we want to make this better for our communities. It doesn’t matter if you’re an agricultural community up here, or you’re a fishing community at the mouth of the river, or a Tribal community somewhere. I mean we all face the same issues and we’re all dependent on that same water for our livelihood. So it’s a challenge to make it work for all of us.

Miller: Ben DuVal, Thanks very much for giving us some of your time and letting us hang out on your porch, which actually is totally in the shade for once. So thank you.

DuVal: You Bet.

Miller: Ben DuVal is an alfalfa farmer in Tule Lake. We spoke yesterday.

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