Parched farms in the Klamath Basin straddling the Oregon-California state line got plenty of sympathy -- but few specific solutions -- from two top federal officials who toured the region Thursday.
U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman promised to seek a resolution to the decades-long water conflicts in the basin after meeting with growers, local water officials and other affected parties.
“The truth of the matter is this whole day has been devoted to learning more about the issues here,” Bernhardt told a gaggle of reporters on a farm south of Klamath Falls, Ore. “I think we’re walking away with some ideas for how we might do things differently.
“I think what’s important for people to know is we have a president who truly believes we have to fix problems and not just let them go forward,” Bernhardt said. “He believes in rural America and has so much faith in what you do.”
The visit was requested by Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., whose districts include parts of the basin. Walden recently traveled aboard Air Force One with Bernhardt and President Donald Trump and gave the president a letter asking him to convene a task force to collaborate and find solutions for basin farmers.
Walden said the federal government needs to use “modern science” and “a new approach” in the basin.
“It’s time for a reset,” he said. “The policies in place haven’t worked for suckers, they haven’t worked for salmon and they certainly haven’t worked for farmers.”
Meetings with locals
Bernhardt and Burman met with growers and other interests, including local Native American tribes, before ending up in a farm field in Midland, Ore., where some 4,000 people gathered for a water rally in late May.
“We are here to listen,” Burman told growers. “I’ve learned a lot from hearing your stories today.”
The fallow field along Highway 97 – the main highway into the basin from California – has been decorated with hundreds of white crosses to signify farms and businesses threatened by water shortages in the basin.
“It was not just a farm rally,” said grower Bob Gasser, who helped organize the heavy equipment convoy and rally on May 29. The convoy of some 2,200 tractors, trucks and other vehicles created a line nearly 30 miles long at one point, he said.
“People came from all over the basin to support not only farms but fish and other interests” in the basin, Gasser said. “We need to fix these problems. I think we’re well on our way toward making some real changes in the next year.”
However, Bernhardt and Burman were noncommittal when asked what they could do to change the water-supply equation that has for decades pitted basin farmers against endangered fish, Native American tribes, environmental groups and downstream fishing interests.
Bernhardt said he and Burman will consider the information they gathered and collaborate with local entities to find solutions. He said visiting in person was helpful.
“It’s very different when you can actually see things” rather than relying on reports, he said. “I do think there are some specific things we can go back and look at from a legal perspective.”
The visit comes after the Bureau of Reclamation recently backpedaled on a plan to further slash water deliveries to basin farmers this summer, as the agency stuck with an initial allocation of 140,000 acre-feet. Drought conditions prompted the allotment, which is only 40 percent of what farms receive in a normal year.
The bureau in May signaled plans to cut deliveries to 80,000 acre-feet as part of a three-year operating plan, which was initiated under an agreement with the Yurok Tribe. Growers had planted their crops based on the higher allocation, and the further cut threatened to leave some 200,000 acres of farms without surface water by midsummer.
In early June, the bureau announced it could fulfill the original allocation because May storms improved Upper Klamath Lake inflows.
The Trump administration certainly isn’t the first to try to tackle the Klamath Basin’s water woes. After the 2001 “bucket brigade” protests over a shutoff of water gained national attention, then-President George W. Bush's administration increased deliveries to growers the following year, which environmentalists blamed for a subsequent die-off of about 70,000 salmon.
Five years of talks produced an agreement in 2010 involving farmers, fishing interests, environmentalists and government officials, and the signatories met for another five years to implement the various fisheries improvements that were part of the agreement. But the talks ceased when the agreement’s main element – the proposed removal of four dams from the Klamath River – couldn’t get congressional approval by an end-of-2015 deadline.
The dams’ owner, PacifiCorp, has since been seeking approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to transfer the dams to a private entity, which would handle their removal. FERC was to consider the request at a July 16 hearing.
Bernhardt was the first U.S. interior secretary to visit the basin since Bush appointee Gale Norton visited in 2002.