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Klamath confrontation won’t solve water crisis

Water battles in the Klamath Basin are nothing new, but this year’s crisis is the worst ever, and confrontational tactics by some irritated irrigators are not helpful.

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The Klamath Project, operated by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, releases water from Upper Klamath Lake to serve farmers, to benefit Native tribes who depend on fish and to protect endangered species. But not this year.

Klamath County is in the grips of a drought some are calling the worst in 127 years. The Bureau of Reclamation says it will release no water into the “A” canal this summer for the first time in the 114-year history of the Klamath Reclamation Project. No releases are forthcoming to cool water for downstream salmon either.

There will be pain all around, from farmers who can’t irrigate their crops to tribes along the Klamath River who already see disease taking hold among the fish populations they depend on for food. But one group of disgruntled farmers is threatening to take illegal action to release water themselves.

Two of them — Grant Knoll and Dan Nielsen — have purchased property directly adjacent to headgates of the “A” canal and set up a large tent they call a Water Crisis Info Center. News reports indicate the center is staffed by volunteers from a national group called People’s Rights, founded last year by anti-government militant Ammon Bundy to oppose mask-wearing mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bundy, who is running for governor of Idaho despite being banned from the state Capitol building for trespassing, has said publicly he is prepared to go to Klamath Falls and take supporters with him.

Bundy has experience with occupying public property, having led the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County in 2016.

Knoll and Nielsen claim the federal government is violating the law, and have threatened to break into the barbed wire-enclosed headgates and release water themselves if the Klamath Irrigation District ignores their demand to open the gates on their behalf.

The two say they don’t plan to be armed, but told reporters there would be “other people” there to protect them.

It’s notable that Knoll and Nielsen were among a group of farmers who forced the gates open in 2001 during a similar crisis. To resolve that incident, the bureau released a limited amount of water, but there is little indication that will happen again.

It’s also notable that Knoll and Nielsen spent $30,000 to buy the adjacent property for the sole purpose of making a public stand — money they could have used to wait out a dry year. Instead, they have embarked on a futile effort to defy the federal government.

Their group has attracted little support even from fellow farmers. The president of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents 11 irrigation districts in the basin, has urged members to remain peaceful and not let the water crisis “be hijacked for other causes.”

Trespassing and destruction of public property, which would be the likely outcome of any attempt to open the headgates, would be a symbolic gesture at best. At worst, the only thing flowing could be blood.