A helping or harming hand
FORT KLAMATH — Ambrose McAuliffe and Rob Oates think they’re being helpful.
Officials with the Oregon Department of Transportation don’t necessarily agree.
McAuliffe and his ranch worker Oates began cleaning out borrow pits along Highway 62 at the Sun Pass Ranch south of Fort Klamath in mid-May.
They pulled out a mountain of debris along a 150-yard stretch they said had raised the water level on adjacent ranchlands, created a breeding ground for mosquitoes and increased the potential for West Nile fever.
“It was hard to imagine the amount of water that was backed up into that field,” McAuliffe said.
Water quality issues
But Randy Bednar, the assistant district manager of ODOT’s Klamath Falls office, said the work could cause his agency to take costly remedial steps because of possible water quality problems to the Wood River.
“They did remove things they shouldn’t have. They should not have gone in and cleared those willows,” Bednar said “We quite often have people do things and they think they’re doing the right thing.”
McAuliffe and Oates cleared clogged borrow pits on state rightof-way between the highway and the Sun Pass Ranch, which was recently bought by new owners, Mike Wiest and Patty Brown, who want to develop a bed and breakfast.
The 64-year-old McAuliffe, a lifetime Fort Klamath rancher, leased 100 acres of the property for cattle grazing, but said the backed-up water made that unfeasible.
‘Basic pasture management’
“The pasture value was diminished,” he said. “It’s basic pasture management: you get the water off.”
McAuliffe and Oates say ODOT has not cleared the pits for years, which has allowed quick-growing willows to prevent usual water passage and create stretches of standing water.
“That water just stands there and breeds skeeters,” Oates said. “I’m trying to be a good neighbor,” McAuliffe said. “I’m trying to preserve the integrity of the private property as well as the state’s right-of-way.”
Shortly after beginning the ditch clearing, McAuliffe and Oates were contacted by an official with ODOT’s Chiloquin maintenance crew and were told to obtain a permit.
“But I just went ahead and did it,” McAuliffe said. “I kind of took it in my own hands. I knew I could do enough to get their attention.”
Bednar said ODOT officials will review the situation with the agency and, possibly, outside environmental specialists within the next few weeks. If it’s determined the ditch clearing is harming Wood River fisheries, mitigation reviews may be held with appropriate agencies, such as the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
At question is whether the Sun Pass Ranch property is a wetlands — and it hasn’t been determined if problems created by the standing water make it one.
McAuliffe believes the lack of ditch maintenance caused runoff water to drain back onto the pasture. He contrasts state ditches with neighboring ditches maintained by Klamath County road crews that are clear of debris and flow freely.
W hen the ditches were last cleared is unknown.
“To my recollection they’ve never cleaned this section of the borrow pit because no one’s complained,” McAuliffe said.
‘Try to maintain ditches’
“I don’t know,” Bednar said. “We try to maintain ditches on somewhat of a scheduled basis. If we don’t see it as a huge issue we may leave it for a year or two. There’s no particular policy that tells us to clear a ditch every two years. Do we need to maintain ditches? Yes we do.”
Bednar said that before the pitclearing issues were raised, ODOT planned to evaluate ditches between the Wood River and Crooked Creek to possibly develop a borrow pitcleaning schedule.
Legal or not, McAuliffe said clearing the ditch provided immediate benefits. He said mosquito populations have been significantly reduced, and he expects to begin grazing cattle this week.
“You let that water off and it changes the texture of that grass immediately,” he said. “You get a sweet smell.”