Klamath Basin Revisited

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Klamath Basin Revisited
Five years after a devastating drought split the community, Klamath Basin residents are working out a solution.
Jim Goold photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Sprague River rancher Jim Goold inspects his new gated irrigation pipeline, which replaces an old open ditch system. Goold expects to cut his water use by a third with the new closed system. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

From high-desert ranches to meeting rooms in Klamath Falls, change is in the air. In this water-challenged landscape where conflict has been the norm, people are seeking solutions. And the Oregon State University Extension Service is in the thick of the action.

Sonner Crume’s ranch near Sprague River is a sign of the times. Where juniper now grows, Crume envisions the bubbling springs, willows, and grasses that graced the landscape of his childhood. Crume has a plan to make his vision reality, and Danette Watson, OSU Extension watershed coordinator, is a big part of that plan. Watson has helped Crume find funding to cut juniper and reseed native grasses.

Aggressive and thirsty, rapidly spreading juniper can hog so much water that springs and vegetation dry up, leaving the barren land useless as pasture. When Crume began removing juniper, he was amazed by the results. “Almost right away, springs started popping up,” he said. In a few months, the grass came back. Now, with funding Watson helped him secure, Crume plans to reclaim 100 acres over the next three years and reduce the $18,000 he spent on rented pasture this year. “If there’s pasture to keep cattle here longer, I can cut down the cost of renting land,” he said.

Down the road, fellow rancher Jim Goold has installed a mile of new gated pipe that he hopes will cut his water use by a third. The new pipe replaces open flood ditches, where cattle trampled and huge volumes of water evaporated in the dry summer air. Despite aching muscles from installing pipe, Goold says it’s worth it. “For the first time in over 30 years, I can drive over every inch of ground and see green grass,” he said. “I can’t believe how much difference a pipe makes.” Goold dreamed of the pipe for years, but couldn’t afford the $23,000 cost. “Then Danette found OWEB [Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board] money and made it happen,” he said. “There’s a lot of help out there, but it’s hard to know where to find it.”

With funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Ecosystem Restoration Office (USFWS-ERO), Danette Watson works with about 100 landowners to develop conservation ranch plans designed to conserve water, improve water quality, and restore wildlife habitat. “Most people want to improve their land,” said Watson, “but they don’t know where to start or how to finance it.”

Danette Watson and Jim Goold photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Danette Watson, an OSU watershed coordinator, and Sonner Crume survey a juniper stand on Crume's ranch near the Sprague River. Watson helped Crume find the funding to continue cutting the water-guzzling juniper and reseed the hillside with native grasses. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Enthusiasm for restoration hasn’t always been the rule in the Sprague River Valley. When Watson started holding watershed council meetings, she described the local attitude as “leave me alone, I don’t need any help.” Mistrust of government ran deep in this land of fiercely independent ranchers. Today enthusiasm for restoration seems contagious. What has made the difference? “A little education and a lot of communication,” said Watson. Although more than 20 federal and state agencies work in the Sprague River Valley, until recently most landowners didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t trust them. Larry Dunsmoor, a biologist for the Klamath Tribes, was instrumental in changing that, said Ron Hathaway, OSU Extension Center administrator in Klamath County. At Dunsmoor’s suggestion, Hathaway and Watson started looking for ways to work with landowners who wanted to bridge the gap between agencies and people. Finally, they hit on an idea: with funding from USFWS-ERO, Hathaway and Watson bought lunch for everybody and said, “If you want to know what’s going on, just show up.”

That first meeting drew more than 30 people, thanks in part to local rancher Bob Sanders, who encouraged fellow landowners to check it out. Now, the landowners meet every month to hear from a different agency. “They’ve invited people they wouldn’t speak to before,” said Watson.

Further south, in Klamath Falls, the changes are just as striking. Water and endangered species are still contentious topics, said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, “but tempers have cooled and people are talking. Back in 2001, it was a war mentality. People are getting tired of it and realize it won’t get anybody anywhere.”

Finding common interests is the key to overcoming old antagonisms, said Allen Foreman, chairman of the Klamath Tribes. “We all understand there’s a limited supply of water,” he said. “And everybody agrees we need a lot of work to improve habitat for endangered species.”

OSU natural resource Extension agent Lindsey Lyons agreed. “Extension supports working from a common-ground approach.” Based in the Klamath Falls Extension office, Lyons is the basin’s unofficial “middle person.” “Nobody else has time to find out what everybody’s doing and get them together, but that’s my job,” said Lyons.

OSU Extension is uniquely positioned to play the role of catalyst and facilitator, said Hathaway. “In 2001, the irrigators and the Tribes wouldn’t talk to each other, but they would talk to us,” he said. Extension relied on long-time personal relationships and OSU’s credibility as a neutral party to keep the channels of communication open.

After a large-scale conference in Klamath Falls in 2004, Extension invested heavily in the Klamath Stakeholders meetings, which brought community members together to “say their piece.” Everyone was invited, anyone could speak, and everybody had to listen. “There was so much passion and so many diverse views,” said Lyons. For many of the 250 participants, it was the first time they had had a chance to explain their point of view and hear others’ stories. They found out their adversaries were “real people with families and dreams and aspirations like everyone else,” said Hathaway.

Since then, Extension has capitalized on old relationships and built new ones. In 2005, for example, Hathaway invited the Klamath Basin Ecosystem Foundation (KBEF) to share office space with Extension. With board members and advisers representing ranchers, irrigators, tribes, the timber industry, power companies, and environmental groups, KBEF is a microcosm of collaboration in the basin. Its mission is to work toward both agricultural viability and habitat restoration.

KBEF is spearheading seven watershed assessments throughout the upper basin. Like Watson, KBEF also works with landowners on restoration activities, so it made sense to house the two organizations together. Now Lyons’s position is partly funded by KBEF, and she does community outreach for the watershed assessments.

Communication with landowners is crucial to success in the Klamath Basin, said Lyons. Watershed assessments are a perfect example. Designed to compile information about water resources in a subbasin and lead to locally developed action plans, they work if landowners are involved from the start. If not, suspicious and resentful residents may conclude that outsiders and government agencies are telling them how to manage their land.

Jim Goold photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Rancher Sonner Crume shows where a "spring has sprung" after he removed a nearby thicket of juniper trees. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Lyons’s days are a blur of e-mails, phone calls, and meetings. In addition to her outreach work with KBEF, she coordinated a Klamath Basin Watershed Conference held in November that connected people throughout the 10-million-acre Klamath Basin, from the Sprague River to the Pacific Ocean. “Ultimately, participants will create visions for restoration and sustainability of the river and communities,” said Lyons.

Much remains to be done. Many basin residents are still wary of others’ motives, distrustful of government, and resentful of meddling by outsiders. Water rights are unresolved, and irrigators face increased power rates. Regulatory processes seem to focus on the Endangered Species Act’s lack of flexibility, and water use often is dictated by the courts. And, looming over everything is the knowledge that little has been done to prepare for the next drought.

Yet, on farms and ranches, in meeting rooms and cafés, OSU Extension faculty and the residents they serve are working to find common ground and lasting solutions. As Hathaway said, “Whether you’re a farmer, a Native American, a fisherman, or a community member, everybody’s vision of the future is that the next generation will have it better. And we’re getting a critical mass of people who say it’s OK to talk.”

Oregon State University Extension Service, Klamath County office

Published in: Water, Economics