Shut Down & Fed Up: Klamath Basin Farmers Protest Water Cuts

By Sarah Handyside

Merrill, Ore. May 29, 2020 – This should be a field of wheat. Instead, it’s a hot, dry dust bowl.

“It’s been hard to drive by it and see it,” Tricia Walker says.

Walker’s family has operated Gold Dust & Walker Farms since 1973. The rich soil and seemingly ever-present sunshine of southern Oregon and northern California are ideal for growing chipping potatoes, grain, hay and industrial hemp. According to their website, Gold Dust & Walker Farms cultivates about 15,000 acres ranging from Tulelake in California to Merrill and Malin in Oregon.

This dust bowl is one of the Walker family’s fields. They planted it in April but had to abandon it due to a severe water shortage announced in May by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Herald & News reported May 8th, that the expected water allocation of 140,000 acre feet for the Klamath Reclamation Project would drop to 80,000 acre feet. That report also said the water supply may dry up completely before July.

Tricia Walker of Gold Dust & Walker Farms

Normally, Walker says, farmers plan crop rotations years ahead of time. “So then when you start getting a dry winter, you start making plan B,” she says.  “And then it gets drier and you start making plan C.”

Gold Dust & Walker Farms was on plan C when the allocation of 140,000 acre feet was announced in April.

“We went forward. We planted,” Walker says. “Seventy percent of our inputs were in the ground.”

That’s when they found out the water allocation for the Klamath Reclamation Project would only be 80,000 acre feet.

“We now are on plan F or something. So, we had fields that we had to abandon. At this point in time, our biggest hope is the wheat holds the soil so it doesn’t blow.”

Up until today, Walker says, this field represented a failure. But this morning it looks like something that might make a difference.

Let the Water Flow

Stretching east and west on Highway 39, which borders Walker’s field, is a long line of tractors, combines, swathers, pickups and every other type of farm vehicle one could imagine. They kick up dust as they rumble down into the lot and park, bearing American flags, Trump/Pence signs, and of course, the names of many family farms from all over southern Oregon and Northern California. Spanning the entire front end of one bright green John Deere tractor is a hand-painted sign that says, “If you think Covid-19 emptied the supermarkets, wait until farmers are unable to produce food due to lack of promised H20.”

Photo: If you think Covid-19 emptied the supermarkets, wait until farmers are unable to produce food due to lack of promised H20.

They’re here for the Shut Down & Fed Up rally, an event organized by farmers and ranchers from southern Oregon and Northern California to protest the drastic water cuts for the Klamath Reclamation Project.  

They all want one thing: Let the water flow.

This isn’t the first time Klamath Basin farmers have endured a shutoff. In 2001, water for the Klamath Project was shut off due to drought. According to the Herald & News, farm fields dried up and crops withered along with farmers’ livelihoods. Many of those present at today’s Shut Down & Fed Up Rally lived through that ordeal, and while it was difficult, it was also different in one very important way.

Tricia Walker explains that in 2001, farmers knew there would be no water, so they didn’t plant. This year, “they got to plan C, went out, put the money in the ground, took out loans, bought fertilizer, and now there’s no water.”

Farmers may not be able to raise a crop to pay back the chemical and fertilizer companies to which they are now in debt. They may not be able to pay their employees. They may not be able to pay their mortgages.

“I mean, farmers, we don’t get paid every month,” Walker continues. “That’s not how it works for us. And so, when there’s no crop come fall, there’s no way to pay our bills.”  

If they fail to produce the crops they’ve promised, they may also lose major clients. Gold Dust & Walker Farms sells potatoes to Frito-Lay.  

“We’ve already contracted to raise the potatoes we’re gonna raise,” Walker says. “We have to perform. Otherwise, we lose those customers.”

Photo: Cody Dodson

Some farmers, Like Cody Dodson and his family, also spent money on new equipment just before the water curtailment was announced. “We always try to better ourselves and put ourselves in a better situation to succeed,” he says. “And now, you know, you’re hoping that equipment doesn’t get taken away. We’re just trying to scramble.”

Dodson’s family settled in Oregon in 1946 and his children, a 3-year-old and a 4-month-old, will be fourth generation farmers. He says of his kids, “I want them to be able to grow up in this livelihood. Everybody should have a chance to do it. But right now, it’s looking very, very bleak.”

Protecting Endangered Species

The water curtailments and shutoffs that have occurred between 2001 and 2020 were meant to increase Klamath River flows and raise Upper Klamath Lake levels in accordance with the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which aims to protect salmon and sucker fish.

Citing a study published in 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Ned Coe, rancher and Modoc County District 1 Supervisor, says this strategy has not been effective, that fish populations have continued to decline.

“There are times when additional water is needed,” Coe says. “And that could be better served coming from a cold-water source. You know, additional storage that actually had true fish-friendly water. Upper Klamath Lake is not salmon friendly water. And I think by increasing the flows out of Upper Klamath Lake into the river, we’re just adding to the salmon’s problem.”

Sarah Handyside with Ned Coe, Modoc County District 1 Supervisor

Coe also points out that the Klamath Reclamation Project’s only legal purpose is to supply farmers with irrigation water.  Developed by the United States Bureau of Reclamation, the Klamath Reclamation Project was initiated in 1882 and construction on the main A Canal began in 1906. The water first began to flow on May 22, 1907, and it has since supported Klamath County in Oregon and Siskiyou and Modoc Counties in California. Prior to its construction in 1906, the area was a vast swath of lakes, marshes and wetlands. The Klamath Reclamation Project drained the area and created a network of dams, canals and ditches to move and store Upper Klamath Basin water and make more land available for farming.   

Bob Gasser, co-organizer of the Shut Down & Fed Up rally, agrees that manipulating lake levels and river flows hurts fish more than it helps them. He explains that Upper Klamath Lake used to dry up a bit during summers and drought years, and that it never seemed to harm the fish.

“In fact,” he says, “we think it may have helped them. All summer long, we’re running hot water down the Klamath River, and the parasite– that C Shasta– they thrive on hot water. So, we’re making a perfect environment for the parasite and a horrible environment for the salmon. But we keep doing more and more and more every year. It’s 20 years doing the same thing, getting the same results, and we’re gonna do the same thing this year again. This is ludicrous.“

TuleLake Irrigation District President, John Crawford elaborates on the same concept, saying “Pre-project lake elevations dropped to levels created by reefs in the lake and the upper Klamath Rivers. River flows were limited to water that could flow over these reefs. It’s estimated that in 2020, flows to the river will be around 410,000 acre feet. The river flow part of that estimate is only possible because of water stored solely for irrigation behind Link River Dam. Artificially high flows of lousy quality water are not helping those fish and the disease C Shasta is thriving.”

The Environment vs. Farmer Dichotomy

Farmers at the Shut Down & Fed Up rally aren’t protesting against fish or the Endangered Species Act. They want to make it clear that their goal is to find a way to provide water for all who need it.

“I think the biggest misconception about farmers is that we’re wasteful with water and that we, you know, are greedy with water, “ Cody Dodson says. He points out that, over the years, farming and irrigation practices have become far more efficient. “So, people need to realize that we’re not out here just wasting water because that’s our lifeblood, too.”

The environment vs. farmer dichotomy frustrates Tricia Walker as well.

Klamath Falls News reported on February 18, 2019, that “farmers in the Klamath Project’s Tulelake Irrigation District are funding water deliveries to Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, a key breeding and feeding ground in the Pacific Flyway.” The report said the cost of that funding could approach $1 million by the end of the year, and it is paid for by Tulelake Irrigations District Farmers.

“We had no requirement to send it down,” Tricia Walker says, “but we started sending that water early to help those migratory waterfowl because it was better for them to have that water early. We took a risk to help the refuges. And that is the kind of story that people need to hear.”

A Time without Conflict

At about 11 am, the Shut Down & Fed Up convoy comes to life. Tractors, semis and pickups honk their horns as they rumble out onto Highway 39 and head northwest toward Klamath Falls. American flags, Jefferson State Flags, Trump/Pence signs and numerous massive protest posters flutter and gleam in the sun.  

As the convoy heads west, more tractors continue to arrive from the east. The endless procession passes slowly through downtown Merrill. Spectators sit on folding camp chairs amid lawnmowers for sale outside True Value Hardware. Two women wave sparkling red, white and blue pom-poms from the sidewalk. “We love farmers!” says a sign attached to a yellow wheelbarrow. Another woman stands on the sidewalk with three cases of water stacked nearby. She deftly throws bottles to a man who stands in the middle of the street, handing them into cars and tractors. Yet more families sit smiling and waving in front of Yummy’s Catering and Tater Patch Quilts.

Outside Merrill, cows graze in the fields. The smell of skunk wafts across the hot asphalt of Highway 39. A white butterfly flaps around a barbed wire fence in the dusty heat. The diesel engine of an Ed’s Propane truck growls. There are at least 10 Ed’s Propane trucks in the procession. They’re one of the event’s sponsors. At the intersection of Cross and Midland Roads, an entire family sits in folding camp chairs in the bed of a pickup truck, waving little American flags. Supporters watch from the roadside all along the route, leaning on motorcycles, minivans and SUVs. When the front of the convoy reaches downtown Klamath Falls, the end is still at Tricia Walker’s field in Merrill, about 20 miles southeast. Although the organizers had originally intended to string right through downtown Klamath Falls, the sheer size of the rally causes them to change the route. Diverting, they gather at their final rallying point, another dust bowl field in Midland on Highway 97.

Organizers of the Shut Down & Fed Up rally built 2,000 white crosses.

Two thousand white crosses stand like a cemetery, tilting ominously in the clouds of dust kicked up by the endless procession of farm equipment. Organizers say these monuments represent the future of farming if water management policy does not change. Tractors stand shoulder to shoulder on the perimeter, watching over them like hulking green guards. A huge white tent towers over hay bales, which serve as seating. A flatbed trailer serves as a stage. Speakers share the platform with a massive bucket that says “Klamath Bucket brigade” on it, a reference to the bucket brigade protest that occurred after the 2001 water shutoff. 

Facilitator Scott Allen steps up next to the formidable tin bucket and says, “This rally and this sea of tractors and trucks and swathers and combines– if you were in it, you couldn’t see all of it! There are over two thousand vehicles! A 20-mile long convoy made its way from Merrill to here without a single disagreement, without a single foul word, without a single middle finger raised, without a single conflict.”

After a prayer, the crowd sings a solemn, almost ghostly national anthem. County commissioners and congressman speak. The heat and dust make the speeches seem a lot longer than they are.

California State Assemblywoman Megan Dahle talks about being a dry land wheat farmer. Her husband’s grandfather homesteaded in Tulelake in 1930 and her sons are fourth generation farmers. “I look at your faces today, and I know that you all want the same thing,” she says. “You want the opportunity to pass your legacy down to the next generation. And that’s what we’re fighting for here today. This isn’t just a rally for one day. Your families in the Klamath Basin rely on the sustainability of these watersheds. But this is a regulatory drought and our industry is overregulated. And it’s time for us to start rolling those regulations back so that we can continue to provide for our families and feed America.”

When it’s Klamath County Commissioner Derrick DeGroot’s turn to speak, he says, “I remember a time when I was a kid that we had a prosperous basin. There was a time without conflict, without water conflict.” He says it makes him sad that his own kids, the oldest of whom is 21, do not know a time without water conflict. “It is up to us to make sure you get to experience what I did when I was a kid. We’re going to give you a basin without conflict. We need all three counties to continue to work together and stand together and figure out how to solve this mess, because this just isn’t working anymore.”

Klamath Irrigation District President Ty Kliewer says, “We know this is gonna be a rough summer. We’re gonna watch our crops shrivel up and die. And we will see that are calves get thinner and thinner with their mothers when their feed runs out for months early this year. Too many of us will confront the reality that there isn’t enough money to pay the mortgages and support our families. And this fall, we will see the famed Pacific Flyway Migratory waterfowl return to refuges that are woefully short of water. Meanwhile, we will live with the frustration that all this damage was inflicted with no benefit to the species that it was supposed to help. At the same time, we will cling to a farmers defining characteristic, and that is hope. We hope the momentum generated today will finally produce real results for everyone in the Klamath basin. From the headwaters to where the Klamath River meets the Pacific.”

Once the speeches are done, parents and their children waft out into rising, billowing dust lit up by hot afternoon sun and plant little American flags between the white crosses.

When I asked Cody Dodson if there is anything that gives him hope regarding the Klamath Basin water conflict, he said, “Today! Look at it! I mean, when you want to see what the backbone of America looks like, this is it. We should be working today. But we realized that if we don’t do this today, we may not have work.”

Editor’s Note: In the Klamath Basin, the issue of water rights and allocation is an ongoing one with a multi-layered history and many differing stakeholders and perspectives. Doing the entire issue justice in one story would be near impossible, so we’ve decided to take it one perspective at a time. Since we happened to be in Klamath Falls when the Shut Down & Fed Up tractor rally occurred on May 29th, we chose to focus this story on the perspective of Klamath Basin farmers. We are in the process of researching the Klamath Basin water conflict from other perspectives, and we hope to publish more stories in the future.

Photos: Shut Down & Fed Up Rally

The Shut Down & Fed up convoy went from Merrill to Klamath Falls to Midland, Oregon, on May 29th, 2020. All photos by Garth Kiser.

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