The Upper Klamath Basin region is both a lifeline and a way of life for farmers, ranchers, area tribes, and other communities that call this wonderful place home. If you’ve ever driven through Klamath Falls and the surrounding area, you know how lush and full of life it can be. However, federal policies aimed at the protection of certain fish species have turned off water to farms and national wildlife refuges. Here's what to know about the situation and those working to return the flow of water.
A Little History
In 2010, 45 different organizations, federal agencies, and area tribes signed the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA). Within this lengthy agreement were insightful ways to ensure that the region’s water was used wisely to grow crops, ensure healthy fish populations, and maintain other resources. In other words, it connected the dots between water policy and food production — even with growing concerns of drought and water shortages.
According to Paul Simmons, Executive Director for the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) and one of the lawyers who helped draft the agreement, the KBRA was endorsed by 45 different organizations, several federal agencies, and area tribes. It was even supported by the Bush and Obama administrations. However, it needed congressional approval by the end of 2015 to be permanent.
That federal legislation didn’t happen. Time ran out on the agreement. It also ran out on farmers, ranchers, and tribes in the region who rely on proper water allocation.
Representing the Region
The KWUA has been protecting the interests of ag in the community for nearly 70 years. Paul Simmons and his group represent over 170,000 acres of productive land and the livelihood of over 1,200 family farms and ranches throughout the region.
“We hear about people being urged to plant as much wheat as they can,” he said when asked about the growing concern over a lack of irrigation water. “But we cannot do that because of the federal water policy that’s shutting us down.”
At the heart of that issue is the Endangered Species Act (ESA). According to federal policy, the water in Upper Klamath Lake levels must be maintained to protect endangered fish.
While inflows into the lake are down, there is more than enough water for irrigators, the ESA, and other interested parties, according to Simmons and the KWUA.
“There are a lot of parts of the West that don’t have any water,” Simmons added. “Here, we have water. We’re just not allowed to use it. It’s a perplexing situation.”
Simmons and the KWUA have called for more balanced and effective water policy instead of 100% of the water going to the ESA.
Thankfully, elected officials, including Oregon and California Congresspersons and Senators have and continue to do what they can.
“People know there is difficulty and suffering. And they worry about it. But it’s hard to understand just how this is sucking the souls out of people without living here and seeing it firsthand,” Simmons said. “There’s a tangible mental health challenge that’s happening. The stress the people are under is with them all the time. You cannot get away from it. It is very real.”
Going to Washington
In the spring of 2022, in a statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, Tricia Hill, an area farmer, shared the issues plaguing the region on behalf of the KWUA.
Among her remarks, she cited how the inequity has affected farmers, ranchers, tribes, and wildlife.
“In 2021, all the water in our system was allocated to maintain elevations in Upper Klamath Lake for ESA-listed suckers and unnaturally high river flows in the Klamath River for ESA-listed salmonids,” Hill stated to the committee. “No water was allocated to farmers or our local waterfowl. A direct impact I saw firsthand: the pair of sandhill cranes in my valley disappeared. The frogs and water snakes that populated my yard near the irrigation canal were nowhere to be seen.”
According to Hill and others, securing water rights for themselves means supporting their community, wildlife and humans alike.
“We are farmers. We grow things – crops, plants, children, and communities...We are experiencing an environmental disaster inside the Klamath Project. Last year, Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge went dry. This year, Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge will join Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in going dry for the first time in its history.”
There is a Way Forward
According to Simmons and the KWUA, it’ll be up to state and federal leadership to make lasting changes. The goal, according to the group, is a committed and focused leadership that wants a sustainable future for farmers, ranchers, communities, tribes, and wildlife.
What Does the Future Hold?
There are honest people on all sides of the issue hoping to find a resolution and bring prosperity back to the region. With the hard work of folks like Paul Simmons as well as tribal leaders, community voices, wildlife proponents, elected officials and more, let’s all hope the Upper Klamath Basin can leave this controversy behind and once again showcase how agriculture and conservation can work together for the good of everyone.
Learn more about the Klamath Water Users Association at kwua.org.