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Person of the Year     
Dan Keppen    

by Kehn Gibson, Klamath Courier Editor published 5 January 2005

KLAMATH FALLS - Dan Keppen went far beyond the parameters of his job as head of the Klamath Water Users Association, bringing the organization into the forefront of water negotiations in the Klamath Basin. For his energy, skill, and dedication to what he himself labels "the cause," we have named him as our Person of the Year.

Photo by Pat Ratliff

Early Years 

Dan grew up in Eagle River, Wisconsin, the adopted child of Gary and Marlene Keppen. Gary Keppen worked as a timber management specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, and a reality of the job was and remains constant transfers.

"They moved to Milwaukee when Dan was still very young, and then to Corvallis," said Dena Keppen, Dan's wife of 15 years. "From there they came to Susanville, and I met him there in high school. He was a year behind me, but I saw him in all my senior classes."

Keppen's mother, Marlene, said the reason her son attended the higher classes was because of a tendency to work hard and overachieve.

"He started reading very young, even before he attended school," said Marlene. "He was always real smart, and he's always worked very hard."

Dena got to know Keppen a bit better when, as a junior, he tutored her in trigonometry. "We never dated, then," Dena said. "I didn't see him until later."

Dan was named valedictorian of his graduating class in 1983, and went on to attend the University of Wyoming. His goal was a degree in petroleum engineering.

 University Years

"I was like any young Republican," Keppen laughs as he describes his freshman year in college. "I wanted to get a degree and make a lot of money as quickly as possible. I remember that in my freshman year most of the graduating class had jobs before they even graduated."

By Keppen's junior year, the economic landscape had changed.

"When I entered college domestic oil production was happening, yet two years later oil had fallen to like $8 a barrel, and I think three or four seniors had jobs out of school," Keppen said. "Their father were executives in the big oil companies, so it wasn't looking good."

Something else had changed in his two years of college.

"I wasn't so interested in making a lot of money anymore," Keppen said. "I wanted to do something, make a difference somewhere."

After graduating with a degree in petroleum engineering, Keppen decided to further his education with a higher degree in groundwater engineering. After applying he was accepted into the masters program at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

While attending the program, Keppen took a job with a water resources consulting firm in nearby Forest Grove. It was a small, two-man shop, and Keppen said he got real time experience in every step of the business.

"I did the research, drew up the maps, and put together the proposals," Keppen recalled. "It was a great learning experience."

Keppen also crossed paths with a former student in Forest Grove.

"I was sitting in a restaurant and heard 'Dan Keppen?'" Keppen said. "There in a phone booth was Dena, talking to her mother." Dena was attending Pacific University in Forest Grove to earn a degree in physical therapy. Two years later, in 1989, the couple wed.

 A New Challenge

After five years in Forest Grove, Keppen took a job in 1994 with Tehama County as a water resource engineer. Dena's father was ill with cancer, and the family of three (daughter Anna was born in 1992, son Jackson in 1996) moved to be closer to Susanville, where Dena had grown up. The job at Tehama County opened up a new vista for Keppen.

First, a series of three massive floods in the Sacramento River drainage got Keppen involved with obtaining restoration funds, and the issues restoration brings.

"We obtained more than $100 million to install fish screens throughout the Cal-Fed project, yet a lot of the environmental groups wanted to restore the Sacramento River to its historic, meandering channels," Keppen said. "That brings flooding problems, and also would clog the fish screens and make them ineffective. It was dealing with those issues that got me interested in water policy."

As part of the huge Central Valley Project, federal officials wanted to tap Tehama County's bulging aquifers and transport the water via canals to recharge the aquifers in San Joaquin County, which had been overused for years.

"We in Tehama County didn't want that, of course," Keppen said. "I had completed a groundwater study to conserve our resource, yet these folks were well on their way to taking our water."

Keppen came up with a new way to get Cal-Fed officials to notice Tehama County. He invited officials from local cities, farm bureaus, and irrigation districts to a forum on Tehama's groundwater, and sent the record of their comments to Lester Snow, the executive director of Cal- Fed.

"I got a phone call one day from Mr. Snow," Keppen said, the memory bringing a smile. "He told me, 'Okay, you have our attention.'"

Submitted Photo: Dan and Dena Keppen with their children, Jackson and Anna, at home in the Basin.

After three years with the county, Keppen took a job with the Northern California Water Association, and began to work closely with the people who developed and implemented water policies in the state.

"I began dealing with state legislators, governors, and agencies that were involved with water policy," Keppen said. "It was exciting work, because you are dealing with a central issue that supports California's economy, the world's sixth largest."

Keppen said he began to realize the importance and power of forming partnerships at the time, and in 1999 took an opportunity to spend a year as a special assistant to Snow when the man left his Cal-Fed post to become the Bureau of Reclamation's director of the Mid Pacific Region.

"I admired Lester Snow, both for the tremendous respect he had from all involved and his ability to get people together and get them to work together," Keppen said. "I leapt at the chance to work with him."

Keppen said that in 2000, working in the Bureau's headquarters in Sacramento allowed him to witness the transition between the Clinton and Bush administrations.

"In my experience, prior to 2000 the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called all the shots within the Department of Interior," Keppen said. "That changed when Bush took office."

Another change came when Snow left the Bureau in 2000. Snow has since been named to the top spot in California's Department of Water Rsources by Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar. Keppen heard about a unique opportunity in the Klamath Basin.

 A Huge Challenge

Keppen describes his interest in an opening with the Klamath Water Users Association in 2001 with a dry sense.

"I wanted the challenge," Keppen said. "Plus, both Dena and I had grown up in rural areas, and we wanted to get our kids out of the city."

Dena describes it a bit differently.

"I remember when he was designing curbs in Forest Grove, and he told me he felt like he was supposed to be doing more," Dena says. "When we drove up to Klamath, the signs were all over, talking about the theft of water and the destruction of the communities. Dan looked at me and said 'Let's do this, it will be a great challenge.'

"He really felt the gravity of the situation," Dena said. "He could feel the weight of those 1,400 family farms on his shoulders, and it took his intensity to a whole new level. In a way, it was his undoing."

Keppen dove into his new job on his first day by helping to compile more than a thousand pages of testimony to give to the National Academy of Sciences' National Review Committee at their first meeting in Sacramento. Later that week, he and Dena were invited to a party in the Basin, and Dena said Dan learned a new lesson there.

"At one point Dan realized that almost everyone there had gone to kindergarten together," Dena said. "It was a revelation."

Also new was the intense personal pressure the job, and Keppen's investment in the job, brought to the Keppen family.

Klamath Courier photo by Pat Ratliff: Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski is joined by Congressman Greg Walden and KWUA executive director Dan Keppen at the grand opening of the new A Canal headgates.

In 2002, the war of words in the media escalated, Keppen said.

"Every week we had to deal with some new accusation or challenge," Keppen said. "A lawsuit brought by Glen Spain and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations almost shut down the Project in April, but we won that. Then (Rep. Earl) Blumenauer introduced his legislation to end lease land farming, but that died on the House floor."

Submitted Photo: Dan Keppen (far right) drives home his point as (from left) Klamath County Commissioner Steve West, Congressman Greg Walden, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, and Klamath Falls Mayor Todd Kellstrom listen.

In Sept. 2002, a combination of high salmon returns, a freak rainstorm in the upper Basin, and extremely hot temperatures brought about the deaths of 33,000 Chinook salmon in the lower 16 miles of the Klamath River. Although less than 200 threatened coho salmon died, the rhetoric blaming Basin agriculture and the Bush Administration reached a crescendo.

Unknown at the time because he didn't report them, Keppen received death threats from downriver interests after the fish died.

"They came via email, mostly," Dena said. "Some of those groups are pretty extreme, and we talked about being careful."

 Crisis and Success

Keppen and his family learned that there was no "off' time in the job.

"If someone read something they didn't like in the paper, they would call at seven on Sunday morning," Dena said. "Dan would always take the call."

When Interior officials wanted 20,000 acre/feet of groundwater to go downstream to appease Tribal interests, they tracked Keppen down while on vacation in Mexico to get irrigators to agree.

The unrelenting work, and Keppen's dedication to it, brought about a personal crisis in 2003. Taking a week off, Keppen went camping alone in the mountains to find solace.

"I always considered myself to be spiritual, but that period was a real wake-up call," Keppen said. "First thing I did when I got back was to lay out a plan to make myself healthier."

Less than five days after his return, Interior officials announced the Project would have to be shut down in the middle of the growing season. Once again, Keppen was at full speed.

Submitted Photo: In 1989, in the bride's hometown of Susanville, the Keppens married.

A copy of a list of all the conservation efforts taken by irrigators since 1992, compiled by Keppen at the request of Tulelake rancher Mike Byrne, led to Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski calling Kirk Rogers of the Bureau on behalf of Basin irrigators. Oregon Congressman Greg Walden called the White House, who did not know of the Bureau's plan. Within four hours of the announcement of the shut down, the decision was reversed.

In the interim, voluntary water conservation efforts by the various districts represented by KWUA enabled the Bureau to maintain the arbitrary lake levels called for in their Operations Plan, and once again the reaction of the communities of the Basin to a created crisis earned respect far beyond the Basin itself.

Keppen earned a respect as well. He, and the KWUA, became the No. 1 target of environmental groups like the Oregon Natural Resources Council and Waterwatch. It wasn't just because of the KWUA's growing respect from political circles. It also stemmed from Keppen's insistance at calling the groups on their public statements.

In one response, to a magazine that used the ONRC's favorite phrase calling the Klamath Basin "the Everglades of the West," Keppen really cut loose.

"The only similarity I see between the Klamath Basin and the Everglades," Keppen wrote in an editorial, "is that the people living here are up to their asses in alligators."

 Success Defined

When Keppen was hired in Nov. 2001, his job was to organize and coordinate the finances, consultants, and various legal actions facing the KWUA. He accomplished that, and more.

In 2003, the Association was given the Water Conservation Award by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The membership's perspective on the 2001 water cutback was vindicated by the National Academy of Sciences. The work begun in 1992 was finally compiled and recognized by groups once thought of as enemies of the Project.

A Democratic governor has advocated for the Project, as has Oregon's Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. Partnerships with the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society, while raising eyes and criticism from KWUA members, has isolated and marginalized extreme groups like the ONRC and Waterwatch. The Association has earned a seat at the table in negotiating the relicensing of the Klamath River dams.

The Association's perspective is sought on off stream storage, listing decisions, and new flow studies. The Association was again recognized in 2004 for leadership in water conservation in connection with the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds, and KWUA members Mike Byrne and the Tulelake Irrigation District both received national awards for conservation.

In December, Keppen announced to his executive board he was stepping down at the end of January. Congressman Greg Walden gave his perspective on the work Keppen had done.

"He has been an extraordinarily positive and effective force in the Klamath Basin," Walden said. "He is bright, knowledgable and patient, and he understands the complexity of water issues in a very volatile time.

"He has a skill set that helps find solutions, and he was able to give policy makers like me the factual knowledge we need to make decisions that factor in the people affected by those decisions. He has made a huge difference, and he will be missed."

left, Submitted Photo, Dan Keppen enjoys a game of tag team chess with his two children, Annaand Jackson. The two family dogs, Pepper (left) and Sage (next to Anna), wait patiently.
right, Submitted Photo, Dan Keppen is a good cook, according to his wife Dena.

"None of the issues Dan ever dealt with before he came here were as big as the ones here," Dena said. "These were peoples' livelihoods, their communities, and Dan never forgot that."

Keppen said KWUA board members had told him he was taking things to personally, yet he saw no other option.

"We have a wonderful story here, one of homesteaders who came here and built these communities from nothing," Keppen said. "We have a good story, and it's the right story. These are family farms, a great part of America, and there are groups who want to get rid of them, basically just to maintain a funding stream. Yeah, I take that personally, because it's about being an advocate, and I am proud to tell the story of these people."





Page Updated: Thursday October 19, 2017 11:09 PM  Pacific

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