Think Out Loud

Agricultural leaders and Ducks Unlimited join forces on water issues in the Klamath Basin

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
June 3, 2022 7:52 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, June 3

Irrigators in Southern Oregon and Northern California are facing another year of drought. The Klamath Water Users Association, an organization that represents farmers and ranchers, has teamed up with Ducks Unlimited, an organization that works on wetland conservation, to handle water issues. The groups aim to recycle water in the region and envision pump stations that can manage water more efficiently. We hear more about the plan from Moss Driscoll, the Director of Water Policy for the Klamath Water Users Association, and Jeff McCreary, the Western Region director of operations for Ducks Unlimited.


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. We’ve been spending the hour today talking about the severe and ongoing drought in the Klamath Basin, a drought that’s often framed as a conflict, and maybe even an intractable one. But we end today with an effort at collaboration. Moss Driscoll is the Director of Water Policy for the Klamath Water Users Association. Jeff McCreary is the Director of Operations for the Western region of Ducks Unlimited. Welcome to you both.

Guests: Great to be here. Thank you. Miller: Jeff McCreary first, can you describe the proposal that the two of you and other groups as well, are together proposing in terms of reusing water?

Jeff McCreary: For those who aren’t familiar with Ducks Unlimited, we’re the nation’s leading wetland conservation organization, and we work throughout North America to try and conserve important habitats for waterfowl that are both natural, as in wetland, and managed as in agricultural lands. The Klamath Basin provides both of those two types of habitats for waterfowl. In fact, Klamath Basin is one of the most single most important areas in the Pacific flyway for waterfowl. And the proposal that we put together with partnerships with the Klamath Water Users is to help get the most out of every drop of water that comes down to the two national wildlife refuges at the bottom end of the irrigation project. That’s the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and the Tooley Lake National Wildlife Refuge. And so these two refuges are interlinked with the irrigation project. And so how can we reuse some of that water after it’s been used on an agricultural land, and reuse it to help support wetlands and waterfowl on the two refuges.

Miller: Moss Driscoll, what might that look like in practice for farmers?

Moss Driscoll: Well, we have a range of farming operations here in the Klamath project. And folks have obviously adapted to their historical farming practices, but there is quite a bit of flexibility and quite a bit of opportunity to shift water around, shift the timing of when lands are irrigated, and to still achieve the agricultural output. So, particularly, for example, Lower Klamath Lake and Lower Klamath Area, which is home to Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, as well as significant farming operations, those soils have historically been fall/winter flooded, and then drained in the spring prior to the growing season. So that’s one example of where the timing, in terms of when water is applied and when it comes off, has the opportunity to potentially serve multiple benefits.


Miller: Jeff McCreary, I have come to understand kind of irreducible truth in the Klamath basin, that now and probably more so going forward, there simply is not enough water for all the interests and lives that want it or need it, for farmers and fish and fowl, that there are just too many straws in the glass. We’re talking here about efficiency in a sense of being smarter users of water, but is there enough water just to go around in the first place?

McCreary: Well, it’s a great question. And I think that how Ducks Unlimited approaches our conservation work is we take a systems view. We want to look at the whole system, Upper basin, the Lower Klamath/Tooley Lake basin. And how do we maximize, how do we achieve multi benefits solutions, and use that drop of water so that it has maximum benefits for fish, has maximum benefits for agriculture, has maximum benefits for wetlands and waterfowl? And I think that looking at it comprehensively changes the question. It’s not necessarily one about is there enough water? It’s about how are we using the water right now? And are there ways to use that water differently so that we can reach multiple benefits for all of the different stakeholders that are in there. And we think that when we use wetlands as the fulcrum for answering that question, how can wetlands be integrated? And part of the solution for recovering fish, for supporting sustainable agriculture, and of course supporting the Pacific flyway with wetlands.

Miller: Moss Driscoll, what is the worst case scenario for you, if projects like this don’t happen if, as Jeff said, multi-benefit solutions aren’t created?

Driscoll: Well, we’re certainly seeing the impacts of that situation as we speak. And particularly for both farmers and refuges and their associated habitats, and the species that they support. I had a farmer down in Tule Lake who made the comment to me, he said, ‘you know, I don’t hear frogs at night anymore. When I was a kid, I used to hear them all the time, but now you go out at night and silence’. We have a 230,000 acre area that was historically wetlands, lake bottom, and the associated riparian areas. And that has been converted to obviously refuges and farming operations. Now we’re seeing … And so for 100 years that landscape has continued to function, albeit managed, and albeit to some degree constructed, but it’s continued to function and provide those ecosystem services and the ancillary benefits. Now we are seeing a landscape that is literally being turned into a desert. And right now both of our refuges, for example, are nearly completely dry. Tule Lake in particular, is for the first time in human history, has been completely de-watered, and the one small standing bit of water out there is likely to go dry here in the coming weeks. So we are in a situation where something has to change and something will change. And I think those changes are already occurring. So just to what Jeff said, we’re looking at how we can use the water that we do have available to us, which is of course always limited and never enough. But to the extent we do have water available to us, how we can maximize the benefit of that. And in this day and age, achieving that means looking at multi benefit solutions that can serve multiple purposes. And those opportunities here in the Klamath project, they exist far and wide. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that to some degree, hasn’t been pursued, because of the other issues, the other fights that have been undertaken.

Miller: It almost seems like things have gotten so bad now that there’s no reason not to come together in some ways and find wins where you can.

McCreary: I say it all the time both to our members and to folks outside of our organization, there is not a water shortage problem in Klamath, and the Klamath Basin, in my opinion. There is a profound problem with people getting along.

Miller: Jeff McCreary and Moss Driscoll, we are going to stop there, but we are not going to stop talking about the Klamath Basin or water issues in the west. Thanks very much.

Guests: Thank you. Thank you.

Miller: Moss Driscoll is Director of Water policy for the Klamath Water Users Association. Jeff McCreary is the Director Operations for the Western region of Ducks Unlimited.


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