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One Hundred Years of the Klamath Project:
Conserving our Resources, Preserving our Heritage

AgLifeNW Magazine February 2005 Issue
Story by Dan Keppen, Klamath Water Users Executive Director

The upcoming new year marks the centennial anniversary of the City of Klamath Falls and the Klamath County Chamber of Commerce. It also marks the one hundred-year birthday of the second oldest federal water project in the western United States – the Klamath Irrigation Project. It is no coincidence that the municipal and business growth of the Upper Klamath Basin should tie back to the same year the Klamath Project became reality. As was painfully made evident in 2001, when Klamath Project supplies were curtailed for the first time in 95 years, the local community and its economy are interwoven with the health of this irrigation project. One hundred years after overwhelming national policy supported its construction, the Klamath Project continues to play a critical role in the local community.

"The Klamath Project started out as a good thing, and it remains a good thing", says Tulelake farmer Rob Crawford. "When the Project was created, Klamath Basin people were meeting a national call by doing what they were supposed to do - settle the West. Today, our efforts focus on preserving our heritage, while conserving our resources."

At the beginning of the last century, when the local community learned that the Klamath Project would be developed, an "incredible celebration" ensued, said Paul Simmons, an attorney for the Klamath Water Users Association.

"The people of the Klamath Basin basically posed a proposal to the federal government," says Simmons. "They told the government, ‘if you will be the plumber and the banker, we can do something good for the country.’"

The federal government did just that, by constructing the irrigation project and providing the initial loan to local growers, who repaid the construction costs decades later. Today, thousands of people – family farmers and ranchers, their employees, and agriculture-related businesses – make their living directly from farming and ranching in the Klamath Project. In turn, their activities support the communities of Malin, Merrill, Midland, Bonanza, Tulelake, Newell, and Klamath Falls. And, perhaps most importantly, their efforts yield high-quality safe food for the country and the world.
Early photo shows scraping of ditches during process of building the Klamath Project.

The last century has been one of massive transformation, vitality, shining hope, and deep despair for the farmers and ranchers served by the Klamath Project. The core reason for the development of the Klamath Project – to create storage of water for irrigation uses – has been diminished by new competing demands, intended to satisfy Endangered Species Act (ESA) and tribal trust conditions. As a result, after perceived ESA and tribal trust obligations are met, Klamath Project irrigators and national wildlife refuges essentially get the water that’s left over. Because very little carryover storage is provided by Klamath Project reservoirs, the farmers now find themselves becoming increasingly reliant on incoming stream flows to the reservoirs, rather than the stored water that was originally developed to provide them with a reliable summertime irrigation supply.

Photo at left was taken June 9, 1905. It shows a glimpse of Tule Lake, California looking toward Bloody Point.  Tule Lake was one of the proposed lakes to be drained and reclaimed under the Klamath River Project.  At right is the same view of Bloody Point and Tule Lake after the Klamath Project was built.


In essence, because of new laws and policies developed in the past century, the original purpose of the Klamath Project has been somewhat lost in the shuffle. This became glaringly obvious in 2001, when water supplies to the Klamath Project from Upper Klamath Lake were curtailed before the irrigation season had even begun, to meet conditions set by federal fishery agencies to purportedly prevent harm to three fish species.

Headline in 2001 when the Klamath Project irrigation water was shut off.

Three and one-half years after Klamath Irrigation Project (Project) water deliveries were terminated by the federal government, local water users are proactively addressing water supply challenges while at the same time trying to stave off a furious round of attacks launched by environmental activists. Project irrigators – who farm on lands straddling the California-Oregon state line - remain apprehensive about the future certainty of water supplies. However, the strong traits shown by the original Klamath Project settlers – self- independence, creativity, a sense of community – are still apparent, one hundred years later. Without these characteristics, the tragic events of 2001 might have become nothing more than passing headlines in local newspapers. Instead, a galvanized community grabbed national media and political attention by forcing the rest of the country to see that things had gone too far.

Now, Klamath Project irrigators are preparing for the next 100 years. In order to deal with the uncertain water situation, and potentially facing higher power costs in 2006, the 21st century Klamath Project irrigator is adapting, by developing new market niches for his products, creating innovative approaches to energy use, conserving and marketing water, developing habitat for fish and wildlife, and improving the symbiotic relationship he has with neighboring national wildlife refuges. The same abilities shown by veteran homesteaders over fifty years ago to carve out new communities from the wilderness will now be employed to conserve resources and preserve their remarkable and uniquely American heritage.





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