The New Shiny Object in the Klamath Basin:

“Downsize” the Klamath Project,  Send Me and My Community Packing – That Will Fix It

By: Tricia Hill

Patience is a virtue.  For farmers, it is an occupational requirement.  As the days grow shorter, we spend our fall making decisions to protect plants we have not even seeded.  Come spring, we prep and seed and tend and water.  Then it is harvest time and we finally know whether our work that began a year ago has paid off. 

In a culture obsessed with instant gratification, farmers just seem, well, old-fashioned.  Maybe that is why the world thinks of us in overalls and straw hats with slow drawls. 

I have had enough of the unfair stereotyping.  And I  have had more than enough of  the recent rhetoric regarding the need to “downsize” the Klamath Project. That hits a raw nerve.  It is patronizing.  It ignores the agency of local communities to shape their world, defaulting instead to the concept that someone with more political power, and from outside of our community, “knows best.”  And, this new mantra naively assumes that the complex issues of the Klamath watershed can be solved with something as simple as “just farm fewer acres.” 

Real World

First, let us address misunderstandings about Klamath Project irrigation and what would be gained by downsizing or “buying out” farms.  The Klamath Project captures every drop of water not used by our crops, through a complicated network of drains.  Water not consumed on a farm returns to the system and is used by another farm to grow still more food.  This is repeated from the top of the Project to the bottom.  If any acres are “downsized,” that does not mean all of the water applied to those acres can or will be allocated elsewhere—some of it is already accounted for in our extremely efficient system of the Project. In fact, according to a 1998 study commissioned by the Bureau of Reclamation, effective efficiency for the overall Project is 93 percent, making the Klamath Project one of the most efficient in the country.

Another real-world fact: if some irrigated land is retired, overall water efficiency decreases.  A certain amount of water (engineers call it “carriage water”) is required to keep canals full to deliver water, regardless of how many acres the canal serves.  Canal water that evaporates or seeps into the ground is “transmission loss.”  The amount of carriage water and transmission loss does not change, whether you irrigate 100 acres or 1,000 acres.  But the fewer acres you irrigate, the more water per acre must be diverted into the canal, meaning it takes more water per acre to irrigate a reduced number of acres. 

And what would one do with my farm in a downsized Klamath Project?  Who manages it?  Will they let it go to weeds (which consume moisture just like crops)? 

Or will they keep it bare and recreate the dust bowl?  Maybe flood it, use more water per acre by evaporation than a crop uses?  And who pays for noxious weed control or the pumping to flood the land once owned by a farmer?


Agriculture is a major economic engine in our basin.  Money that a farmer receives for a crop is passed through to employees, seed growers, equipment dealers, and many others.  All of our employees buy cars, clothes and groceries.  They go to restaurants.  Hire plumbers.  Pay the neighbor’s kid to mow their lawns.  Every dollar received by a Project farmer yields two dollars in activity for the local economy as the money passes from hand to hand.

Downsizing implies a permanent retirement of land, so those acres’ values would essentially go to zero.  This would directly affect property taxes and the funds for schools and social services.  Where is the honest conversation about how the counties are going to be compensated for lost revenue from lands that, suddenly, effectively have no value?  Other affected public agencies include irrigation districts, who not only pay for operation and maintenance for our irrigation system but also the costs incurred by the Bureau of Reclamation to operate major infrastructure that it still manages.  The irrigation districts, in turn, bill each acre for a share of that total expense.  If acres go away, the expense for operating the system does not automatically decrease: who is going to pay for those idled acres’ share?

Before we leave the topic of economics, here is a secret about the Klamath Project: each farm is not its own island.  Most of us are specialists in the crops that we grow and have developed customer relationships to market.  But those crops are not always what is best for our own land, and certainly not every year.  Neighbors rent fields to neighbors, building our soils, naturally suppressing pests and disease, and helping each other be economically sustainable.  If my neighbor’s farm is decommissioned in the name of downsizing, those opportunities disappear and everyone suffers.


Wildlife rely on Klamath Project infrastructure for water, like this buck near Tulelake.  Photo by:  Scott Seus

Many fail to realize that, over the last 25 years, farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin have taken over approximately 30,000 acres out of production.  Some of those acres were converted to wetland habitat above and around Upper Klamath Lake.  These acres were productive farmland, but in the name of species recovery, were voluntarily returned to wetland habitat.  Have the species recovered?  Nope.  Instead, Upper Klamath Lake sucker populations continue to decline. 

Also forgotten is the wildlife that calls our fields and canals home.  Waterfowl, deer, turtles, frogs, and many more species will suffer if we downsize.  We have seen it over the last two years as lands are forced to idle, and canals to go dry.  Mass numbers of turtles end up having to cross roads searching for water.  The pair of sandhill cranes that have raised chicks in the same field for the last ten years has gone missing.  It does not take long until the fields turn into a stifling dust bowl supporting no farmers, no communities, and no wildlife.

I have not said that fish don’t need water.  But unless there is evidence that someone is keeping secret, completely drying up the Project, including mitigating for conditions the Project does not cause, has not done a bit of good for the targeted fish species.  Calls for “downsizing” are calls for a grim scenario that destroys farm communities and wildlife In the end, all that proponents of such an outcome can claim is that downsizing was achieved.

Community and Culture

Simply, farmers farm.  If there is less land  in production, there will be fewer farmers, fewer farm employees, and fewer business employees, and fewer families.

Future 5th generation famers –  Photo by Ashley Crawford

Imagine lining up your friends, neighbors, and family members against a wall.  Now pick: who goes?  Who will you not bump into at the grocery store?  Who will no longer be attending your church?  Which of your children’s best friends will not come back to school in the fall because they had to move away?  Who will not be able to make it to grandma’s 90th birthday party because they now live four hours away?  Who will not be there when things go to hell and you need someone to just listen?

My guess is  that you chose not to pick, because you do not want to lose the people you love.  Neither do I.  But those who say “downsize” the Project, whether they realize it or not, are saying the people and communities I love do not matter. They are acknowledging that shifting them away and outside our community is a non-issue. 

Insulting.  Demeaning.  Unacceptable.

The reality is the community of the Klamath Project is a group of deeply connected people, lands, and wildlife all relying on each other for our social, economic, and environmental well-being.  Pull the wrong thread, and you unravel the whole. 

Project farmers are smart, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial people who care deeply about the land we farm and the resources we use.  So why are we not starting by asking the Project for solutions?  Why would telling farmers how to farm even be part of the conversation?

Young farmer using technology to communicate with tractor GPS

Scott Seus speaks to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack following a discussion forum in St. Helena, California. On August 2, USDA announced that it will make $15 million available to producers in the Klamath Project through the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency.

A dozen years ago, thoughtful leaders from throughout the Klamath Basin defined solutions that respected all the communities and their heritage.  The Project would have had less water than we need, but we, the community, would have had the ability to plan what to do with it in the best interest of our community.  I am willing to have that conversation again.  But, please, drop the reactive, naïve “downsizing” rhetoric and let the agricultural community define its own future.

Tricia Hill is a 5th generation farmer in the Klamath Project.  She graduated from Lost River High School and received undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Oregon.  She farms with her father, brother, sister, and uncle, with help from many wonderful people and friends.  Tricia and her husband Darcy have two daughters who attend Henley schools, and just wrapped showing at the Klamath County Fair.

Thank You Klamath County Commissioners, Klamath Drainage District, Klamath County Watermaster, Oregon Office of Emergency Management, Klamath Irrigation District, Oregon Department of Public Health, Klamath Basin Improvement District, Tulelake Irrigation District, and many individuals, for very hard work, donations of equipment and labor, and support to assist rural residents whose wells have failed during this worst-ever year of surface water delivery in the Klamath Project. 

“This is a community that’s going down due to politics, water wars, fires and more, but this community is willing to step up and pay a phenomenal price for her efforts. 4-H kids are kids who have learned responsibility, compassion, work ethics, teamwork, leadership, humbleness and a whole lot more through their animal projects. This is someone who started as a little girl, looking up to her heroes in the livestock world who has now become one of those heroes to other little girls. This is our future, represented by one girl but followed by many.”
Facebook posting by Diane Keith



From a KWUA Press Release

Klamath Water Users Association expressed strong support and appreciation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA)  August 2 announcement of financial relief for Klamath Project irrigators who have been deprived of Klamath Project water this year.

USDA has contracted with the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency (KPDRA) to provide nearly $15 million to producers who have been slammed by successive years of water shortage, compounded by the past year’s COVID pressures on production and markets.

“We are very grateful to Secretary Vilsack and his team at USDA,” said KPDRA President Marc Staunton. “The agency has been committed from the top down to address the drastic harm that is being experienced in the Project agricultural community.”

Mr. Staunton said that the KPDRA is still working out the details as to how the funds will be deployed. One possibility is that the KPDRA will offer payments to producers on all eligible land in the Project, on an equal, per-acre basis.

Producers would be eligible whether they participated in other KPDRA programs this year or not. “All producers have dealt with their own unique problems, losses, and costs, and the KPDRA board is inclined to spread the assistance to all.”

However, some areas of the Project would not qualify.

“Unfortunately, as with our ‘non-irrigation’ program, land will not be eligible in districts that the Bureau of Reclamation believes is not in compliance with the 2021 Project operations plan,” said Mr. Staunton.

KWUA Executive Director Paul Simmons said that KWUA has been working with USDA officials since January to identify relief opportunities.

“They have really listened, and worked to establish a program that will provide a boost to producers and the regional economy that agriculture supports,” he said.

On April 14, USDA had announced a ten million-dollar program to provide assistance. Today’s announcement will replace that program.

“What they have arrived at is a much better fit, and it should be very efficient on the ground,” according to Mr. Simmons.

Mr. Staunton thanked the U.S. Senators from Oregon and California for their coordination with USDA on the issue.

“Senators Wyden, Merkley, Feinstein, and Padilla all worked hard to be sure USDA understood this situation needed attention and help,” he said.“ We are indebted to them for their efforts on behalf of producers in the Project and the local business supported by agriculture.”

Mr. Simmons noted that financial relief – while welcome – is not the top priority of KWUA.

“Our most important priority is to have water for irrigation so producers can produce,” said Mr. Simmons. “But we have to play the cards we were dealt this year and do the best we can for producers who are under duress.”

He added that although USDA’s $15 million will be in addition to $15 million that the Bureau of Reclamation has provided to the KPDRA, that is still not nearly enough.

“We will continue to exhaust every possible source for additional funding,” he said.

Disaster Assistance LFP-Livestock Forage Disaster Program The Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) provides payments to eligible livestock owners and contract growers who have covered livestock and who are also producers of grazed forage crop acreage (native and improved pasture land with permanent vegetative cover or certain crops planted specifically for grazing) that have suffered a loss of grazed forage due to a qualifying drought during the normal grazing period for the county. LFP also provides payments to eligible livestock owners or contract growers who have covered livestock and who are also producers of grazed forage crop acreage on rangeland managed by a federal agency if the eligible livestock producer is prohibited by the federal agency from grazing the normal permitted livestock on the managed rangeland due to a qualifying fire. LFP is administered by the Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). For more information, call the local office at (541) 887-3495.


  • In Klamath County, the Water Master’s Office.  Click here to fill out OWRD’s Well Interference Form Or call 541-883-4182
  • Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management and the Oregon Department of Human Resources have secured portable water tanks for  community members whose wells have run dry at no cost.
  • Klamath County Fairgrounds is offering filling of water tanks/containers at no cost. Please contact the office prior at 541-883-3796 or check in at the office when you arrive.
  • In the Tulelake / Newell areas in California (Siskiyou and Modoc Counties) Call Tulelake Irrigation District at 530-667-2249.

What has KWUA been working on…

KWUA’s Board of Directors strives to keep member districts, their patrons, and other interested parties informed. Board members help with the dissemination of information received at our monthly board meetings, and staff produces a monthly newsletter.

The KWUA board held its regular business meeting on August 11, 2021.  Below is a recap of ongoing activities.  If you would like more in-depth information, we encourage you to contact your respective district board member, listed on our website.

Operations Report

Klamath Irrigation District Manager (KID) Gene Souza reviewed west-wide drought conditions and Klamath Basin weather, forecast, and hydrologic conditions.  Upper Klamath Lake net inflow for 2021 water year (October 1, 2020 – present) is almost the same as 1992, which is the worst in the period of record used for hydrologic planning in the Project. Gene Souza and TID Manager Brad Kirby described data related to Reclamation’s recent decision to provide 10,000 acre-feet for diversion at Station 48 in order to move water into Sump 1B on Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  Gene described data on diversion at Station 48 and Anderson-Rose Dam. Brad discussed the means by which water is being conveyed from J Canal to Sump 1B.

Gene also distributed and discussed Reclamation’s projected budget for reserved works for calendar year 2022. Reimbursable costs are estimated at over $755,000.  Link River Dam O&M is increasing and will stay higher for a few years.  Overall, Klamath Drainage District is now experiencing higher reserved works costs due to the change in approach to what is considered non-reimbursable flood control.  Reclamation has committed to re-evaluate the allocation. 

Gene completed his report by describing a webinar on dam removal hosted on the morning of August 11 by “Dividing the Waters,” an organization that provides educational programs for judges who become involved in water cases.  All of the presenters on the webinar were supporters of the dam removal initiative.

H.B. 3103 The Oregon Legislature approved House Bill 3103 during the biennium that has just concluded.  It authorizes the holder of a water right certificate for water storage to change the purpose of use.  The bill was controversial in various ways, including whether it was necessary and how it could affect holders of the rights of use. Oregon Water Resources Congress (OWRC) and KID were among the parties on record in opposition.  The legislation requires that the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) conduct a stakeholder process “for the purpose of finding agreement among stakeholders on a path forward for transfers of stored water and development of related legislative proposals.”  It also provides funding for facilitation for that process.  There is a pending question as to when that process will start, who will be involved, etc.  OWRD had already identified proposed rule changes before H.B. 3103 had even passed.  The Oregon Water Resources Commission will receive comments later this month on the propriety of starting this rulemaking before the public process under the legislation has concluded. OWRC and KID have provided comments recommending that the process be deferred.   HB 3103

Executive Director’s Report

ESA Re-Consultation An important focus at this time is the timing and structure for Reclamation’s re-consultation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The “Interim” operations plan that was adopted in April of 2020 will remain in effect until September 2022 unless something changes.  KWUA has expressed concerns with the structure that has applied to recent consultations and appears to be continuing in the

“hydro team” that is discussing potential alternative operations.  This immediate concern does not relate to the Administration’s withdrawal of an ESA “re-assessment” that was completed in January of this year.  Instead, it relates to the fact that recent approaches have overlooked that the ESA requires an evaluation of “effects” of a federal action, which also requires the identification of an “environmental baseline” against which to compare the effects.  Under current biological opinions, the Project is causing jeopardy or take even when there is no water being diverted.  This reinforces the concern that the Project is called upon to try to mitigate for all fisheries issues in the basin rather than being limited to its own responsibility.  KWUA has provided various communications to the hydro team, attorneys for basin stakeholders, and the Department of  the Interior (DOI) regarding these concerns.   KWUA is also requesting a follow-up to a previous meeting with DOI leadership on this issue.

D.C., Salem, Sacramento Activities We anticipate a visit to the basin soon from Camille Touton, President Biden’s nominee for Commissioner of Reclamation.  Ms. Touton had intended to visit during the week of August 9, accompanied by Deputy Commissioner David Palumbo, but the COVID delta variant situation has changed travel planning.  In addition, we anticipate visits to the Project area by Paul Souza, Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service USFWS), and Jeff Payne, Deputy Regional Director of the Bureau of Reclamation, in the near future.

On August 4, Ry Kliewer, Tricia Hill, Ben DuVal, Scott Seus, and Paul Simmons joined a discussion forum with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in St. Helena, California.  The Secretary was on a western trip focusing on drought and wildfire efforts.  In all, approximately 25 people were at the meeting.

Secretary Deb Haaland visited the lower Klamath River during the week of August 9.

Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement  After discussion, the board supported the Executive Director’s recommendation that there be a communication to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that follows up on the memorandum that KWUA sent to the parties to the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement last August. Also, Gene Souza reported on recent research by Siskiyou County Water Users Association (SCWU) leading to SCWU’s conclusion that prior to the construction of COPCO 1, there was an impassable reef in the Klamath River at approximately that location.  SCWU has requested engagement and support from Upper Basin irrigation on this and related matters.  Paul Simmons discussed his understanding of these issues.  The board agreed that there should be an ad hoc committee (Gene Souza, Luther Horsely, Paul Simmons, Mark Johnson) to meet on these issues and come back with a recommendation at the September meeting.

Litigation Update  On October 5, 2021, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hold oral argument in the four lawsuits involving USFWS’s January 2017 Comprehensive Conservation Plan.  All of these cases involve, in one way or another, farming or grazing on Lower Klamath, Tule Lake, and Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuges. 

1st  stage of Copco 1 with dam finished 13 feet below ultimate height. Dec. 1917

The federal district court for the District of Oregon ruled in favor of USFWS in all four cases, and all four plaintiff groups appealed that decision.  Paul Simmons will inform the board as to whether the arguments will be live streamed or only available for viewing later.

The Ninth Circuit Court has also given notice that it will schedule oral argument in the “Medford Cases” in December, January, or February.  These are the cases in which Project irrigation interests contended that, for various reasons, Reclamation is exceeding its authority and obligations in Project operations. The district court dismissed the actions on the grounds that basin tribes are necessary parties who must be joined in order for the cases to go forward but who could not be made parties because they have not waived sovereign immunity to be joined.

Deputy Director’s Report

Cramer Environmental Variables Analysis Update Mark Johnson discussed the progress on the environmental variable analysis being conducted by Cramer Fish Sciences (CFS).  This analysis will look at relationships between environmental variables and fall Chinook returns on the

Klamath River.  The work schedule has been delayed by a few weeks.  Mark is closely coordinating with CFS to ensure the analysis will be of the best quality.

Klamath Project Agricultural Economic Analysis Update KWUA is coordinating with Oregon State University (OSU) Extension to quantify the economic contribution of agriculture in the Upper Klamath Basin.  The project will update the 2012 OSU analysis to provide numbers based on current production and cropping patterns.  Recreational and domestic well impacts may be analyzed as well.  Two agricultural economist firms have provided Scopes of Work for the project and stakeholders and interested community members are providing input.

Pelican Bay Sucker Monitoring Update Mark provided an update on the Pelican Bay sucker monitoring effort being conducted by USGS.  This project is looking at the use of this water quality refugial area by Lost River and shortnose suckers during the summer months.  As of July 29th, there have been 1562 suckers detected by the seven antennas deployed in areas of known sucker use.  We are hopeful that this monitoring will provide answers to questions regarding  access to Pelican Bay for the Lost River and shortnose suckers.

Klamath Project Drought Response Agency Report

The application period for the Klamath Project Drought Response Agency (DRA) “no irrigation” program closed at the end of July. Timely applications were filed on an estimated 42,400 acres.  This is expected to translate to payments of up to over $300 per acre in that program (once program acres have been verified, a dollar amount will be determined). 

The DRA has also approved an additional grant agreement with the USDA for $15 million.  The probable use of that funding will be per-acre payments across the Project in the eligible districts, with the anticipated application period expected to open around the end August. 

Paul Simmons stated an additional $5 million from Reclamation could become available, although this cannot be counted on.  Paul also requested and received guidance regarding additional pending requests to the state of Oregon, as well as the drought relief legislation that Representatives LaMalfa and Bentz announced this past May. KWUA has partnered with other organizations in those requests and activities.

Paul also reported that on August 4, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved $5 million for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition and Automation (SCADA) devices in the Project and also $10 million intended for DRA, both for fiscal year 2022.


· Klamath Irrigation District will hold its monthly Board of Directors meeting on September 9 @ 1 pm at the KID office

· Tulelake Irrigation District will hold its monthly Board of Directors meeting on September 13 @ 8 pm at the TID office

· Klamath Project Drought Response Agency will hold its monthly Board of Directors meeting on September 8 @ 11 am in the KWUA boardroom

· KWUA will hold its monthly Board of Directors meeting on September 8 @ 2 pm in the KWUA boardroom

· Klamath Drainage District will hold its monthly Board of Directors meeting on August 24 @ 1:00 pm at the KDD office

· Pioneer District Improvement Co. will hold its monthly Board of Directors meeting on September 6, @ 5:30 pm


· KWUA is planning the 2021 Fall Harvest Tour for early Fall.  If you are interested in sponsoring the event, please contact the office at  541-883-6100.

· KWUA offers notary services. Chelsea Shearer is a certified Notary Public and KWUA offers her notary services free to all members and patrons of member districts. To schedule an appointment with Chelsea, call the office at 541-883-6100. 

· KWUA offers meeting room facilities for member districts, Monday–Friday 8am- 5pm based on availability. To schedule a meeting, call the office at 541-883-6100. 

D.C. Report– The Ferguson Group

KWUA and The Ferguson Group (TFG) have for the past several months been working closely with the Oregon delegation, members of the California delegation, and key agency staff at USDA to secure funding to address the dire water shortage facing the Klamath Project.  Recently, KWUA assisted the KPDRA in finalizing arrangements with USDA to provide funding through direct payments to producers via the DRA. In addition, KWUA and TFG continue to work with supporters on Capitol Hill and the agencies to identify and secure potential additional federal sources of funding to help mitigate the 2021 water shortage impacts in the Project and to address operational needs through legislation related to the pending dam removals.  KWUA met with Representatives LaMalfa and Bentz, and their staffs, during July.   

Elsewhere in Congress, the Senate advanced the bipartisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act bill by a vote of 69-30, with 19 Republicans joining all Democrats and Independents. The  infrastructure package includes $550 billion in new spending on roads, bridges, transit, ports, broadband, and water infrastructure, and is the product of months of negotiations between congressional negotiators and the White House.

The Western water provisions in the bill, which largely track those passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July, include $8.3 billion for the Reclamation. Of that $8.3 billion in guaranteed funding to be provided over the next five years, $3.2 billion is provided for the aging infrastructure account for long-term loans, and approximately $1.2 billion is for water storage, groundwater storage and conveyance. Also, $400 million is dedicated to expanding WaterSMART grants.

Immediately after passage of the infrastructure bill, the Senate passed the Democrat-led FY 2022 budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 14) along party lines, which unlocks the 50-member Senate Democratic Caucus’s ability to pass an expansive $3.5 trillion economic package to “enact the Build Back Better agenda,” including large swaths of President Biden’s proposed American Jobs and Families Plans unveiled earlier this year.

The bipartisan infrastructure package next goes to the House where its fate is uncertain.  Democrat moderates are publicly pressuring Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to take the legislation up immediately (Congress is on their August recess, with a brief return of the House on August 23), while progressives are insisting the $3.5 trillion annual FY 2022 Budget Reconciliation bill, which is expected to include a range of “human infrastructure” programs (i.e., expansion of Medicare, boosting child care tax credits, climate change, etc.) be voted on first.       

 The Senate Energy and Water Development FY 2022 Appropriations bill, recently approved by the Appropriations Committee as part of a three bill package, would provide more than $10.6 billion for the nation’s water infrastructure, including a record level of funding for the Army Corps of Engineers at $8.7 billion, an increase of  $906 million over the current spending levels, and more than $1.8 billion for Reclamation, a boost of $310 million over current spending levels to help Western states maintain water supplies currently facing historic drought conditions. The Senate bill would also provide an additional $450 million to Reclamation for emergency drought relief activities across the West.

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Klamath Water User Association