The future of farming is at stake in the Klamath Basin, where drought is sucking the land dry, and conflicting interests over water use threaten a long-term solution.
A cloud hangs over Klamath Basin in Southern Oregon. In a literal sense, the sunless sky is low and gray when I arrive in Klamath Falls on a December afternoon. With snow piled 3 feet high through the mountain pass north of here, it is easy to forget this region is in a drought. But the weather is only one part of a complicated water crisis plaguing the area.
I am here to talk to people about the worsening challenges farmers and ranchers in the region are facing; how the convergence of drought, COVID-19 and community infighting have coalesced into a figurative cloud of frustration for those who work the land.
When COVID-19 shutdowns first started in March, Scotty Fenters’ father had just undergone heart surgery. “That month is a blur,” he recalls. But Fenters, a third-generation farmer in the Klamath Basin, had to regroup quickly when restaurant shutdowns ripped the rug from under the family business. Suddenly he had a lot of potatoes with nowhere to go.
Scotty Fenters, Klamath Basin farmer Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
Fenters manages land all over the region, growing mostly potatoes along with alfalfa and garlic, and a lot of what he grows is sold to the service industry.
The complications from COVID-19 were unprecedented. “But we made do,” says Fenters. A contract with a federal program for distributing boxes of free food to people in need replaced some of the business lost through restaurants. “It wasn’t nearly as much, but it helped us stop hemorrhaging money.”
Suddenly grocery stores needed more food too. That pivot was complicated and messy. Certain kinds of potatoes are not meant to be displayed on a grocery store shelf because they turn green too fast. And they had to figure out new ways to package them. “We ran as hard as we could, as fast as we could, to keep people in potatoes across the country,” says Fenters. “It was amazing, the work people did in the agriculture industry to keep stores going through all this stuff.”
Then in April the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation told irrigators they would be receiving less than half as much water as their regular allotment — 140,000 acre-feet would be allocated for farming, as opposed to the usual 350,000, due to severe drought conditions. (An “acre-foot” is 326,000 gallons or about enough to cover an acre of land in a foot of water.)
Water allocation is a complicated web of priorities and designations. Water rights are managed differently in each jurisdiction across the region, all drawing from a finite yet fluctuating resource: the water that melts off the Cascades, then flows into the Klamath River and its tributaries.
Climate change has reduced snowpack, and increasingly dry, hot summers are causing groundwater to evaporate more quickly. For decades, water shortages have pitted farmers against local tribes and endangered-species protections in a seemingly impossible battle to find a balance that gives everyone enough of that water.
This year the news was bad. And then it got worse.
Farmers on the Klamath Project, an irrigation network providing water to 230,000 acres in Oregon and California, planted their crops based on the April allocation. It was not enough, but knowing the amount of water that would be available, they got to work on managing for the shortage. After those adjusted plans were in motion, the Bureau of Reclamation came back with a drastic revision, giving them only 80,000 acre-feet.
Fenters recalls the panic that set in: “I’ve already bought the seed. I’ve already paid rents. I’ve already put out fertilizer.” But without enough water, all that work and all that money in the ground would dry up.
That is when farmers fought back.
On May 29, 2020, hundreds of tractors and trucks gathered in Merrill, Oregon, then formed a convoy that stretched for 29 miles, according to the Klamath Water Users Association. The goal was to draw attention to the dire situation of Klamath Basin farmers, and thousands showed up to participate and support.
In May 2020, a convoy of tractors and trucks went through Merrill, Oregon, to draw attention to water issues facing Klamath Basin farmers. Photo: Chelsea Shearer/KWUA
American flags billowed from their truck beds, and signs reading “We farm, you eat” and “Food grows where water flows” were attached to their grills. Onlookers lined up to cheer on the convoy as they made their way to Klamath Falls.
Prior to the event, 2,000 white crosses were planted in a dry field in Midland, a small town 8 miles south of Klamath Falls. It was a somber display meant to symbolize the potential death of the farming industry—if things do not change.
White crosses in a field in Midland, Oregon, meant to symbolize the potential death of farming in the Klamath Basin. Photo: Chelsea Shearer/KWUA
Lyndon Kerns, whose family has been farming in the Klamath Basin for 130 years, participated in the event and says the effort was a success. Just days after the “Shut Down and Fed Up” rally, the Bureau of Reclamation announced it would stick to the original allotment of 140,000 and avoid further reduction.
Randall Kizer’s home sits on land his great-great-grandparents homesteaded in 1873; they were among the first settlers in the region, several decades after coming west via the Oregon Trail.
Stories from those early days have been passed down through generations. One in particular made an impression on Kizer: In the mid-1880s, an October snowstorm stranded a neighboring rancher’s cattle on the family’s side of the mountains. Kizer’s great-great-grandfather could not let them starve — even though it was impossible to bring in more hay once snow arrived. So he fed them, along with his own cattle, and a long, hard winter eventually saw their supplies run dry. By the end of the season, both herds had perished.
Randall Kizer, manager of Loosley Ranch. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
“It was sad — but that’s why I’m not a socialist,” says Kizer. “You give anyone a hand up, that’s fine. But if you start giving them a handout, it’ll eat you up.”
Kizer now leases his land for cattle grazing. He lived elsewhere for decades, but when he and his wife came back to Fort Klamath for a class reunion that Kizer helped organize, she was taken by the close-knit community in the basin; many of the people Kizer grew up with still lived nearby. So the couple relocated from Eugene and took over the family business. That was back in 2010, when Fort Klamath was still home to a couple restaurants, a few shops, two bars and two motels.
All that has since changed. The motels are still there, but everything else is gone. Most of their friends have moved away.
When Kizer was attending grade school in Fort Klamath, he says he was close with members of the local tribes. Today, however, relationships between tribal members and local farmers are tenser than ever.
While farmers are pushing for more water to irrigate, tribes are fighting to keep water in the Klamath River high enough to restore salmon runs, which play a vital role in their heritage and livelihood.
The Klamath River once ran thick with coho and Chinook salmon — it was the third largest salmon producer on the West Coast. But dam construction on the Klamath River, along with warming water and decreased flow from climate change and irrigation, have gradually annihilated salmon populations.
Tribes are also trying to keep water in the Upper Klamath Lake high enough for the endangered shortnose sucker fish, which have not been maturing to spawn for decades. Their decline is due to a combination of soil erosion from cattle, the degradation of native vegetation along stream banks and poor water quality. Suckers are also an important part of the Klamath Tribes’ traditional diet, and efforts to maintain water levels for these fish means less water for irrigating farmland.
In 2001 suckers were the center of bitter controversy between tribes and Klamath Project ranchers, when a federal mandate called for the retention of water in Upper Klamath Lake.
That same year, more water was allocated for the wild coho downriver, and these two decisions curtailed water from irrigation flows, leading to a complete shutoff for ranchers in April. Kerns says that water shutoff was the beginning of the end for a lot of folks. “There were some schools that never reopened, businesses that never reopened. They were entirely dependent on the agricultural community, and in some of these little towns, that all but dried up.”
This year ranchers feared another shutoff like 2001. And tribal representatives were also unhappy, saying the Bureau of Reclamation failed to provide the water they were promised in their efforts to restore suckers and salmon.
Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe, told Capital Press in June, “We feel like this is a repeat of history and a very tired old song being sung again. We had an agreement that very clearly laid out what the bureau was supposed to do. ...They simply went back on it.”
Nearly a decade ago, it seemed as though progress was being made in bringing tribes and farmers together on a solution for everyone. In the spring of 2013, after the Oregon Water Resources Department ruled in favor of the Klamath Tribes’ water rights for maintaining water levels in Klamath Lake, the tribes began negotiating with “off-project” irrigators (those who are not part of the Klamath Project) on water sharing and habitat restoration that could work for all parties.
The Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement was established, promising increased inflow to Klamath Lake for suckers, a riparian program by which farmers would work to improve water flow to adjacent land for healthier fish habitat, and an economic development program and increased opportunities for tribes to exercise cultural rights.
Kizer served as the president of a landowners’ group at that time, through which he participated in the conversations and negotiations between tribal members and irrigators in the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement. The group operated for three years, during which cooperation slowly disintegrated. Eventually, the tribes believed promises made under the agreement could not be met, and they requested a termination of the agreement in 2016.
“I did everything I could to make it work,” says Kizer. Representatives of the Klamath Tribes declined to comment for this article.
There is a lot of skepticism among farmers regarding the water that is being used to maintain levels for sucker fish and salmon. Kizer and Kerns both tell me that from what they have seen, the levels being maintained for the lake are hurting the farmers and failing to help the fish, and that it is all based on outdated science.
With farmland drying up, Kerns says all kinds of wildlife are suffering too.
“We used to have a hawk on every power pole, from here to Fort Klamath,” says Kizer. “If you see two or three now, it’s like, wow!” He remembers when there were plentiful herons and cranes, too — and those he rarely sees now.
Meanwhile, the impacts of COVID-19 hit the cattle industry and Kizer’s ability to lease land for grazing. Due to water restrictions, Kizer’s land is supporting fewer cattle; they went from running 250 to 160 this year. And the shutdowns in the butchering and meat-packing plants left cattle farmers with fewer buyers.
“There’s a chain of [events] when a calf is born; they know he’s gonna go here, here, and then here, and he’s gonna end up in the slaughterhouse in this window.” When COVID forced facilities to shut down, they missed those windows and everything got backed up.
“It’s been a tough year, for sure,” he says.
Fenters tells me there are a lot of misconceptions about farmers wanting to take water away from the fish. But he considers himself a steward of the land, just like anyone else who calls this place home and wants to make a sustainable living here.
He also emphasizes that many of these farmers who are fighting for more water are small businesses just trying to make it work.
“We’re trying to keep people employed and do the right thing, and it’s a nightmare.”
When I meet him at his home, he is working at his computer on a Sunday, rearranging field plans in anticipation for the possibility of another dry season.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or heard someone say, ‘Those farmers should focus on something more sustainable or grow something else.’ It’s just not that simple,” Fenters tells me, shaking his head. “We would be doing those things if we could. But I can’t work on better efficiencies or more sustainable practices if I don’t know if I’ll have enough water.”
When it comes to water issues, Fenters says he understands the tribes’ frustrations too.
“I genuinely believe most people are good. We’re all just coming from different places and need different things.”
In July 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation committed to investing $1.2 million in scientific research to develop solutions for the Klamath Basin water crisis. “The activities announced will be helpful to all the stakeholders in the Klamath Basin,” said deputy regional director Jeff Payne. “And we are committed to maintaining an ongoing dialogue.”
The scientific studies will include updating an outdated assessment of stream flows, evaluating emerging science to improve understanding of the relationship between Upper Klamath Lake elevations and endangered sucker fish, and developing a process to improve data on disease facing salmon.
“I think there is hope,” says Terrence Conlon, who serves as regional science coordinator at the United States Geological Survey. “The hope is in better understanding. We’re trying to provide unbiased, objective science for decision makers to inform their management.”
A more immediate solution was announced on November 2, 2020, when a technical correction was made to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), providing $10 million in immediate drought relief to Klamath Basin irrigators.
“As the Basin grapples with a particularly difficult season, this correction to WRDA will allow farmers to access up to $10 million per year for strategies such as land idling and groundwater pumping in times of drought,” wrote Sen. Jeff Merkley in a statement to Oregon Business. “These much-needed resources can help keep irrigators in business as they continue long-term work to address water-supply challenges in the region.”
Farmers are a supportive bunch,” says Fenters. “We want each other to succeed.” He says that despite tensions within the agricultural community, there is also a strong commitment to the industry and to each other.
Fenters, Kizer and Kerns all have children, some of them already grown and moved on to work in other industries. None of them are confident about their family businesses surviving another generation — or whether their kids would even have an interest in dealing with all of this. But none of them have plans to leave this region or quit farming.
When I ask Fenters if he hopes his children, who are younger, will be farmers someday, he takes some time before answering.
“I love that I can put something into the ground and see what comes out of it. That full-circle experience is pretty unique.” But also, “They gotta do what they’re passionate about. Maybe they’ll be surgeons. Who knows?”
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