Loss of water rights will devastate Klamath farmers & ranchers

Dani Nichols_thb

by Dani Nichols

When I was 16 years old, I worked at one of the independently owned drive-through coffee kiosks that the northwest is famous for. In my small town, we didn’t have too many hipsters or soccer moms gracing our graveled drive-through: this is the Klamath Basin, and my clientele were hay haulers, gravel truck drivers, ranchers, dairy farmers and ranch hands. These were kind and hard-working men and women – the kind of men who tip their hats when they meet a lady and the tough gals who can raise four kids and bale hay all summer while they’re at it. I remember their faces so well: the hay-hauler who always had an encouraging word and a generous tip for me, the cattle rancher with a fondness for our “cowboy cookies”, the dairy owner who came through at least once a week and bought a staggering number of mochas for his entire milking crew, the flatbeds piled high with irrigation lines or tractor parts, driven by community-minded folks, never too busy to buy a coffee, help a neighbor or shoot the breeze for a moment.

On Monday, those trucks and tractors that I saw so often as a youngster paraded through downtown Klamath Falls Oregon (225 of them, at last count!) but they were not loaded with hay, cattle, potatoes, fresh milk or irrigation line. They were covered in homemade signs and hauling the children of fourth and fifth generation farmers, begging anyone to notice their hard work and allow them the freedom to continue. They looked vaguely uncomfortable – these aren’t activists or excitable sign-carriers, and one older gentleman in a tattered ball cap even held up a hand-painted sign reading, “I’d rather be ranching”.

So what drove these men and women from their cows, fields, truck stops and mechanic shops? The Klamath Basin Water Crisis.

Photo by Dani Nichols, at the rally on July 1, 2013

Photo by Dani Nichols, at the rally on July 1, 2013

Photo by Dani Nichols, at the rally on July 1, 2013

Thousands of small, family-owned farms and ranches have had their irrigation water rights cut off in the last couple of weeks, devaluing their land, forcing many of them to sell cattle, stop harvesting, cease production and fear for the future of their families.

Water rights are a complicated issue, even for those who are familiar with the workings of rural life – and this case is no exception. Here are the basics: the Klamath Tribes and the environmental activists have teamed up to starve farmers and ranchers out of the Klamath Basin, because of the lives of the supposedly endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake, and the Coho Salmon of the Klamath River. Because the tribes have been in the Klamath Basin since “time immemorial”, a judge recently ruled that their water rights supersede those of the Klamath County Agriculturalists. What are the tribes doing with these newfound rights? Turning off water to agriculture, the main industry of Klamath County (plus a threat to refuse multi-use water to Crater Lake National Park, the only National Park in Oregon and a revenue generator of more than $30 million for Klamath county and the surrounding area last year) and letting thousands of gallons of economic and cultural force drain to the ocean instead.

It’s not that farmers and ranchers are eager to see fish gasping for air on the banks of the river, or that they don’t want to have healthy rivers and wetlands. Agriculture, and small family farms like these in particular, are true stewards of the land, carefully caring for wildlife and natural resources as much as they do their domestic productions. After all, without healthy pastures, watersheds and natural habitats, their livelihood also suffers. Beef, hay, potatoes and the countless other agricultural industries that keep the Klamath Basin economy moving are reliant on healthy environments and the farmers and ranchers have been open about their willingness to compromise and use the water for the health of the whole county. But the environmentalists and tribes aren’t interested in compromise or health. (To prove that point, they conveniently ignore the many warning voices who have asserted that the Coho Salmon are not indigenous to the Klamath River, or that there is plenty of water available for both fish and farmers). One thing they do want is clear: power, and complete and utter control over the life-blood of Klamath County, its water.

The economic numbers are staggering: $554 million dollars will be lost from the local economy without irrigation water rights, from agriculture alone, not mentioning the further Detroit-like impact of a shrinking working population, displaced families and a devastated economy. Over 4,000 people will be out of work and potentially will lose the homes, ranches and farms that have been in their families for generations, and the food production for more than 1,000,000 (one million) people will come to a grinding halt. Agriculturalists buy new tractors, pick-ups and farm supplies – they pay veterinary bills, grocery tabs and mechanic shops. Without the steady stream of income from the industry of Klamath County, expect every storefront in town to struggle (except maybe those that take food stamps).

But the devastation here is more than economic. An entire way of life is being sacrificed on the altar of political jockeying and power plays. These hard-working men and women can’t just move to a new town and start over – this is more than their profession, it’s their culture, their inheritance, their way of life and their community. Many of these small farms have been handed down (along with their water rights) since 1864, and generation upon generation have worked the land and provided jobs, economic stability, community growth and sustainable food production for over 100 years. Without these small farms and ranches, kids don’t get pony rides at the fair, and soccer moms can’t buy locally-sourced meat, vegetables and fruit. We won’t have small-town fairs and rodeos, our kids can’t take horseback-riding lessons, and we won’t have the option of going to the farmer’s market and shaking the gnarled hand of the man who grew our dinner.

If Klamath County dries up and the farmers are forced out, more counties in Oregon will face the same fate. Yes, Klamath County is a small rural community, and they are probably being picked on because they don’t have the clout to do much more than hold a small-town rally. It’s a classic case of David vs. Goliath, except David looks an awful lot like a bashful cowboy and will probably tip his hat and call you “ma’am”. It probably sounds quaint to anyone who didn’t grow up in the country, who’s never picked rocks out of a hayfield or played hide-and-go-seek in a barn or watched breathlessly as a calf was born. But this is rural America’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. They aren’t asking for much, just the right to keep feeding their kids and yours.


Photo courtesy of Susan Topham, Flying T Salers Ranch


Photo courtesy of Susan Topham, Flying T Salers Ranch


If you’re interested, here are a few sources for more research. This is an issue that’s very close to my heart, so I’m going to keep writing about it and fighting for my friends and neighbors, so stay tuned.









United States v. Braren (Lewis & Clark Law School’s Environmental Law)








Dani Nichols is a a writer, editor, and adventure-lover currently residing in Central Oregon. You can read her blog at www.cuteconservative.com

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Posted by at 07:54 | Posted in Economy, Environment, Natural Resources | 157 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Ballistic45

    Create a Crisis then Exploit it….. World History is full of species going extinct before man ever set foot on Earth.. Sucker fish and Salmon, Oh really, is that why Salmon were clubbed to death by Oregon Fish and Wildlife, to protect them I guess… Sounds like Democrats have enlisted the help of Native Americans to get even with those White Eyes who farm the area… Native Americans get revenge and the Dems get control of the local water.. CONTROL, CONTROL, CONTROL is the Agenda of the left, always has been..

    • Darin Darwin.

      FYI, “Native American” is pc for what Australia aptly terms aboriginal inhabitants ostensibly preceding so called white settlers.

      Before aborigines so what then? Bestimate – primordial humanoids, today still hanging around in banal trees and generically recognized as DNC howler monkeys

    • DavidAppell

      Beautiful, and utterly false, logic: because species went extinct before man was around, man can’t possibly have anything to do with current extinctions.

      Strange — some people only value something when it’s gone.

      • Ballistic45

        All extinctions have a cause and are Natural, we humans are just as much a player in the Natural world as anything else… Are you ready to kill off Billions of Humans and go back to tribal hunting and gathering to return the world to its former state or as close as possible to it? I think not, I’m sure you drive a car or ride in them, fly in planes, read from the light provided by electricity, eat at restaurants cooking with natural gas and throw garbage out into land fills along with your own…. I’m sure you set under an air-conditioner to keep comfortable.. Drive on highways covered in Asphalt that leach Hydrocarbons into our soil and water table.. Are all these things Natural or Un-natural, if Un-natural, would you give them up? Naw, David, I can’t see a writer like you hunting or gathering a damn thing, but I’m sure you would want the rest of the tribe to care for you, being the liberal you are… Even I support Environmentalism IF it is based on SOUND Science.. Not on Agenda based Mantra’s put together by Eco-Freak’s… Science as you know has to prove Theory by repeatable experiments to be seen as Scientific Fact taking in ALL variables influencing the outcome.. Just because the world maybe warming does not automatically prove that man is the cause.. CO2 does not appear to be as much of a Greenhouse gas as previously thought.. Does the activities of the Sun play a role and how much? Funny how you neglected to address Oregon Fish and Wildlife clubbing Salmon to death, ? to save them ? Ya, Right…. Or the long history of Liberals Creating Crisis is well established, then using that Crisis to push forward a Power Grabbing Agenda that does little to address the so called Crisis itself, but does hand power over to government.. but not a word from you..

      • minions say so

        Anyone for trading back the Dodo Bird for the DildoAppell bard?

  • mairez

    This was a pleasure to read.

    • wranglerdani

      Thank you! :)

  • cecil91

    Salmon runs are a huge part in this debate.” Klamath Basin water rights wars have been going on for decades. Indians knew how to protect the fish and the land. Give it back to them and get the hell out. In a few generations no one will be around who cares about the small farms that have only been around since 1864. They will all be as dead as hammers and exist only in the literature and beneath head stones.

    • Weed Fugawee

      Brilliant! “Give it back to them and get the hell out.”

      cecil91 might desire his astute proclamation copyrighted before Obama plagiarizes the sentencing and draws in another well wrought Nobel Peace Prize.

      • cecil91

        Klamath Basin tribes were exported to reservations in the mid 1850s and in the 1950s congress terminated federal recognition of the Klamath Tribe–an act that opened up timber land for sale and exploitation. Historically, the state and fed governments have not only told the Klamaths to get the hell out, but made them get the hell out. So to the descendants of European colonialists, I say turn about is fair play and Get the Hell Out, and don’t let your hay bales and tractors hit you in the A$$ on the way. (copyright 2013)

        • .

          So much for the vast melting pot!
          ‘Peers North American aborigines will never opt for participation in the fine kettle of fish so long as the BIA and guilt ridden suckers pander to their separatist interests.

        • wranglerdani

          Hi cecil91 … so perhaps we should raze Portland as well? You do know that Tribes used to happily row down the Columbia before white folks came in with their coffee shops and tattoo parlors, right?

          The tribes were paid for their land and water rights, and there is more than enough water to go around. What’s currently happening is theft, extortion and injustice on a grand scale. Unfortunately, it’s comments like yours that make me wonder if compromise, moderation or the hope of American exceptionalism is even possible anymore.

          • cecil91

            The Portland area tribes have long since disappeared, wiped out by disease and loss of cultural identity. The Klamath issue is too complex and litigious to ever be settled satisfactorily for all concerned.

            Says here that Klamath tribes are now first in line concerning water-rights issues. That’s a state water resources ruling. It goes on and on, ad infinitum. Time for whites to move on before they grow old fighting for the last drop that was never really theirs in the first place.

          • wranglerdani

            The rights were sold to farms and ranches along with the land. This is a fact, inconvenient though it may be. I’m more bothered by your blatant racism then anything else, though… how dare you assume that every person who will be harmed by the economic collapse of an entire economy is white? Every grocery store worker, tractor salesman, diner waitress and farm worker in Klamath County will be hurt by this, as well as the tribal members themselves, although they don’t seem to see the repercussions just yet.

    • Francis Pettygrove

      The Klamaths were nothing but scavengers. When they decided to dissolve the tribe in the 1950s for cash, they blew it like drunken … stereotypes. Anyone who’s ever been around Chiloquin knows they could’t manage a lemonade stand.

      • 3H

        LOL.. wow. You just gotta love the racism, and lack of compassion or understanding.

        They weren’t a single tribe, they were made up of three tribes; and they didn’t decide to dissolve it, Congress made that choice for them.

        • .

          3H, a typical dildo bard in need or estrous.

          • .

            need, or pose as hermaphrodite, go figure…

      • cecil91

        Seems they were doing OK before whites came along. Didn’t have any alcohol either. Didn’t have small pox, measles or any of several white diseases that left them dying by droves in their lodges.

        And as I recall, Francis Pettygrove was a penny-pincher who would step over a warm corpse to seal a real-estate transaction. Seems he died off still trying to make a name for himself building some town in Washington.

  • DavidAppell

    I believe Dani Nichols missed a sappy, emotional string she could have pooled. Must have been an off day for her.

    • wranglerdani

      Hey DavidAppell, That’s what’s interesting about this story… it’s not a made-up crisis. I’m not using hyperbole to make a point or simply trying to be maudlin. Here, in our own great country, there is a protected class that is single-handedly destroying an entire community and local economy because of their unwillingness to share or compromise. That’s kind of an emotional issue, don’t you think?

      • DavidAppell

        Your piece is very one-sided. Everyone has an interest, but there is not enough water to go around. “Starving” is a loaded term for protecting rights and interests.

        • wranglerdani

          I’m curious, do you think it’s impossible to compromise or use moderation? We may not all get what we want, but we can all get what we need. What’s your opinion on taking the water from Crater Lake NP, a huge economic boon for the county and national landmark away? Is it OK to starve out farmers but not tourists? What about those tribal members who would like a chance to engage in agriculture? Their livelihood is also gone, but we don’t care about that, because we think they should be salmon-fishing and living in teepees. It’s absurd, dishonest and incredibly unjust to all sides.

          • DavidAppell

            The language you’ve used in your article — “starving” others of water, “supposed endangered” fish, etc — is hardly the way to a compromise. You’re alienating the very people you need to work with.

            Taking water from Crater Lake would be pure madness. I doubt it would ever be allowed to happen.

          • wranglerdani

            So you admit that justice isn’t blind, then. Taking water from Crater Lake is madness, but from farmers is “fair”. Water is water, and everyone should have equal rights to it. I’m sorry that the word “starve” is so distasteful to you, but sometimes the truth hurts.

            Have you done research on the sucker fish or Coho Salmon in the Klamath Basin? Both are being used as pawns in an expensive game of Monopoly… much like the tribes themselves. The research shows that sucker fish are bottom-dwellers who don’t need as much water as they’re given, and many biologists argue that the salmon are not even indigenous to that area of the Klamath River. So, I think it’s fair to say that both are “supposedly” endangered, neither is proved and this solution is akin to using a shotgun as a flyswatter. Perhaps there’s a more precise way to say it?

          • DavidAppell

            What is unfair to “those here first” get rights to the water? I bet if you were here first you’d find it plenty fair….

          • DavidAppell

            The entirety of Crater Lake is only 25% larger than the annual discharge of the Klamath River. It would be draiined in a matter of decades. It is the ultimate nonrenewable resource.

          • wranglerdani

            I think you misunderstand the issue. They are proposing cutting off the multi-use water to the park, not draining the lake. This means that every water use in the park, from drinking fountains to toilet flushes, would either be limited, cut off completely or trucked in. Please note that fairness and justice require compromise and moderation, not ham-handed force. All of Klamath County will suffer without the industry of agriculture, and there are better ways to solve this problem – that’s my point about Crater Lake – clearly there’s a better solution here then making tourists pack in their own water and pee in the woods.

          • DavidAppell

            So you propose ruining one industry, Crater Lake tourism, to save another that is inherently unsustainable. That doesn’t sound very wise.

          • wranglerdani

            Haha, I’m not proposing that at all. :) Both farmers, Crater Lake and fish can have SOME water – but no one can hog all of it.

            More importantly, however, I assume that you enjoy eating, so how can farming and ranching be unsustainable? Would you prefer we rely on massive slaughterhouses in China or local family farms for our food?

          • DavidAppell

            Again your language (viz. “hog”) doesn’t sound very suitable to a compromise, but to a power struggle. Other parties are exerting their *right* to the water.

            Personally I would prefer we all eat less red meat, since it isn’t very healthy and it requires a huge amount of water per pound. But since there isn’t enough water to go around, whatever agriculture is done in the Klamath basin ought to be more suitable to the water availability.

          • wranglerdani

            Well, I’m not sure what other word to use when one party takes all of one resource. I suggest you read “In Defense of Food”. It’s not written by an agriculturalist, but by a food journalist, and his findings are that red meat from family farms is good for you. (Not to mention the countless other produce items, the hay that farmers raise for other livestock besides cattle, and the benefits of buying local). However, it seems that no amount of research will sway your point of view, so I’ll have to bid you happy trails. Best of luck to you, and I hope that this conversation at least gave you something to think about. :)

          • DavidAppell

            Michael Pollan’s anthem is “Eat food. Not to much. Mostly plants.”

            In any case, raising beef is extremely water intensive. It does not seem a good fit for a water-stressed region. I don’t like seeing anyone lose their livelihood, but you can’t create water out of thin air and there isn’t enough to go around, unless you devastate ecosystems that have been in existence for thousands of years. That hardly seems fair, let alone wise.

  • Mark

    Might be time for a rain dance.

  • zanzara2041

    Withholding water is a WMD.

    • Pronto

      Wampun of Mindful Desertification….

  • 3H

    So what do you do about the Klamath Tibes Dani: the ones who held the water rights for thousands of years before 1864, before those water rights, and land, were forcibly ceded to the United States? I noticed that they don’t figure in your narrative. What about their rights, their culture, their way of life. You dismiss them so quickly and so callously. Evidently their rights don’t matter, only the rights of people you know. How near-sighted and blind.

    • Timber Me Shivers

      Remember me?
      – Edison Chiloquin


      • 3H

        LOL, you do realize that quoting Edison Chiloquin only helps my case, yes?

        • Caption Jack Hangtreatiee

          Si, sick signatori. Ha!

        • Manifest designery

          You’re a Caption Jack in reprise, Chief Hung Barftowski in supercilious reprise.

    • wranglerdani

      Hey 3H, it’s a complicated issue and I was only addressing a small part of it. I actually do know tribal members, many who are as upset about the confiscation of the farmland as anyone else.

      One thing you’ve failed to note is that the Tribes actually sold the land back to the U.S., along with the water rights. I know that they regret that decision, but that doesn’t make outright theft the solution. There are other ways to compromise that don’t leave thousands of people displaced and an economy ruined, while still keeping tribal customs and tradition intact.

      As a side note, the tribes actually have more rights and privileges (and a massive federal budget) than anyone else in the Klamath basin, so I was merely trying to point out the inequities in the current situation.

  • Hi Yo Shiver

    Auld Indian saying: “What the white man throws away we can use for a long time.”

    Unsaid: Our Amerind ‘aborigine’ culture eschews progressive Democratic procedures unless we can be paid boo coo bucks for our wampun desires – yet remain separatist-ic by treaty or by folly or passive knuckle heads.

  • wnd

    Apartheid outlawed in RSA.“`USA still patronizes it with big budget BIA.

  • .

    The Amerinds should be melded into modern society and their extraneous rights or rites be no more or less than what’s left of US enjoys without doing a lick of work that’s right. It’s the Dem progressive socialists sashay, blokes!

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