Think Out Loud

Klamath County faces another year of drought

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
June 3, 2022 8:28 p.m. Updated: June 3, 2022 8:46 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, June 3

In March, Gov. Kate Brown issued a state of drought emergency for Klamath County. Residents have faced wells that have gone dry and had limited access to water. Kelley Minty Morris is the chair of the Klamath County Board of Commissioners. She joins us with details on how another drought year has affected the region.


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. If you’re just tuning in, we’re getting a variety of perspectives on the situation in the Klamath Basin. Today we turn now to Kelly Minty Morris, who is the chair of the Klamath County Commission. Welcome back to TOL.

Kelley Minty Morris: Thanks so much for asking me to join.

Miller: One of the issues I know that you have focused on over the last year, because the scarcity of water has so many different ways in which it’s affecting people’s lives and livelihoods, but you have focused really on domestic water supply on county residents wells running dry. Can you give us a sense for the scale of this problem?

Morris: Certainly. So last summer, July 9th specifically, listeners may or may not recall that the Bootleg fire was underway. Of course we were still in COVID response, and then we started getting reports that a suspiciously large number of domestic wells were going dry. And I say that because it’s not uncommon for a domestic well to go dry, but the scale and the sheer number was starting to become concerning. And I’ll say that the county doesn’t do water in general. But this was enough of an impact that we felt like we needed to step in. So we sought out state assistance and we were assigned an emergency manager from Oregon Emergency Management to help guide an emergency response. Now at that time, there was speculation based on the number that had already been reported, that we may end up with hundreds,  not dozens, but hundreds of dry wells by the time that the season was over. And that that bore out. We ended up having something along the lines of approximately 270 domestic wells that went dry over the last year in 2021, that we responded to. And I say ‘we’, [but] it really was a state response. The Oregon Department of Human Services and Oregon Emergency Management were the ones who funded large tanks for people to have, and water delivery for those tanks. What was super disheartening is that everyone assumed that once the fall, once the irrigation season was over, and we started to get some wet weather in the fall, that those wells would all recharge and we would be done with the emergency response. And what was disheartening is that we still have not climbed our way out of the emergency response. Not only did we continue to have wells that didn’t recharge, but then in 2022, we’ve had a significant number of new complaints. So we have been in emergency response mode since July of last year. And now we have in additional again, probably more than 100 new wells that have [gone] dry in 2022, just to climb out of this mess.


Miller: And this is maybe the scariest thing about it, because as you said, the sense was, when the legislature allocated $4 million dollars based on your lobbying and many other local officials, the sense was this is just funding to help get you through a singular tough time. But as you noted this spring, the Oregon Water Resources department, they said that a number of test wells were already lower than they were at the same time last spring. How worried are you right now by the possibility that you’re not looking at a short term problem, but an ongoing catastrophe?

Morris: Well, I think it’s clear that that is what we are dealing with. The state has agreed to continue funding this emergency effort through the end of 2023. That tells you that the experts are assuming that this problem is not going away.

Miller: Do you see a long term solution right now? Because I don’t think anybody is suggesting that having water trucked in to hundreds of different families in Klamath County is a viable, truly long term solution. So what is?

Morris: The solution that’s being worked on is having people deepen or fix, mostly deepen their wells. The problem with that is that it’s very slow, because we only have something like six well drilling outfits that can serve people. So again, while we thought, ‘oh well, we’ll just get money and then everything will be solved’, nothing is happening quickly. And this issue is turning out to have many layers, more than people I think anticipated.

Miller: You noted this, but the biggest decision makers in terms of water policy are the federal government in many respects, and the state government in a number of other respects. What role can you play as the chair of the county commission?

Morris: Well, prior to this, I have often said, and I say it a little tongue in cheek, I’m smiling, you can’t see me. But I always said, I’m the commissioner that does not do water. We all know water is very complicated in the Klamath Basin. So I had long said, ‘I don’t do water’. Well, now, that’s exactly what I do. The county, as you correctly noted, the county really doesn’t have a nexus to be in a driving position, but we certainly did feel like it was important to step up and make sure that our citizens’ needs were being met. I think everybody agrees that domestic water is important. People need to have drinking water, they need to flush toilets, they need to do laundry. I’ve been willing to be a convener, might be the correct word, and I’ve certainly appreciated deeply the state’s willingness to step in and fund these efforts.

Miller: Kelly Minty Morris, thanks very much for joining us.

Morris: Thank you.

Miller: Kelly Monte Morris is the chair of the Klamath County Commission.

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