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'Water boy' swaps hot seat for family

Dan Keppen, outgoing executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, talks about his three years at the post during turbulent times for the Klamath Reclamation Project.

January 24, 2005

by DYLAN DARLING

They called him "water boy."

Dan Keppen, outgoing executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, became the face and voice for Klamath Basin irrigators in the ongoing water issue. But the grueling job has taken a toll on him and his family, he says, so it's time to step aside.

"I just want to get some balance," he said.

Keppen, 39, told the water users board of directors last month that he was leaving at the end of January. They have been searching for his replacement, who hasn't been chosen yet.

After working his last day next Monday, Keppen will take a month off to figure out what to do next with his life. He plans to stay in the Klamath Basin, and his wife might expand her physical therapy business.

"We're staying," he said.

For family's sake

With his wife, Dena, he has two children, son Jackson, age 8, and daughter Anna, 12. It's for their sake he is leaving the often all-consuming job, he says.

"Once it hits 5 o'clock, I can't just turn it off and go home," he said. Calls about work would come at all hours on all days of the week. The job kept him up at night and often away from his family on business trips down to California, up to Salem and back to Washington, D.C.

Becky Hyde, whose family has a ranch in the Sprague River Valley, has also tried to juggle being involved with the water issue and having young children herself.

"I think it is really hard on families," she said.

Keppen biography
Name: Dan Gary Keppen
Age: 39
Birthplace: Appleton, Wis.
Parents: Gary and Marleen Keppen, Klamath Falls
High School: Crescent Valley (Corvallis); Lassen High School (Susanville), graduated as valedictorian, 1983
Education: Bachelor of Science in petroleum engineering from University of Wyoming, 1987; Master's degree in water resources civil engineering from Oregon State University, 1992
Married: To Dena Dixon in 1989 in Susanville, where he had met here in high school
Favorite band: Led Zeppelin

There is a constant calendar of meetings, working groups and other events to attend. And being the front man for one of the key groups in the issue draws a lot of heat from those on the other side and from the media.

The water users' executive director position wasn't always a hot seat.

Keppen's predecessors had worked in relative obscurity and the job, like the 50-year-old water users association and the Klamath Reclamation Project its members get water from, blended into the backdrop of the Basin. Things changed in the summer of 2001.

That April the federal government didn't open the headgates of the A Canal for the first time in almost a century so water in Upper Klamath Lake could be reserved for agreements with Native American Tribes and for federally protected fish.

"It was that summer they realized that they had so many issues they needed somebody to do a full-time job," Keppen said.

Working with water

At the time, Keppen was working for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as a special assistant to Kirk Rodgers, Mid-Pacific regional director, in Sacramento. He was on a year exchange from his position at the Northern California Water Association, a non-profit association representing 70 public and private water agencies in the Sacramento Valley.

Through his temporary job with the Bureau, Keppen was introduced to the Klamath issues and its players. He heard the water users were looking for a new executive director and put in his application. He started work in November 2001.

Keppen's bachelor's degree from the University of Wyoming is in petroleum engineering, but he has a master's from Oregon State University in water resources civil engineering. He has made a living working with water issues.

Before working for the Northern California Water Association, he was a water resources engineer for Tehama County in California, and before that a water resources civil engineering consultant in Portland.

As executive director for the water users, Keppen worked for a diverse board, made up of 11 members, each with a different personality and sometimes different positions on the issues.

"Dan was pretty much the traffic director," said Steve Kandra, water users president.

Everything came to Keppen from the board and it was his job to mold the message.

Now the water users are looking for a replacement. They have put announcements in water journals and newsletters, have interviewed people at water conferences and are still taking applications, Kandra said.

"We enter a new era," Kandra said.

The board hopes to have Keppen's replacement on board in 30 to 60 days, said Bob Gasser, board member and co-owner of Basin Fertilizer & Chemicals in Merrill.

"We are going to miss him, but we are going to find a qualified person to replace him," Gasser said.

He said Keppen had a fabulous talent of getting information out to the public, mostly through his weekly newsletter. He also had a way with county, state and federal leaders.

Keppen often meet with members of the Bush administration, Congress, the California and Oregon state legislatures.

On his office wall he has a photo with Gov. Ted Kulongoski at the A Canal headgates and a photo of him and President Bush.

But those are just some of the memories Keppen will leave the post with. There were distributions of numerous reports, successful days in court, and meetings that drew thousands to the Klamath County Fairgrounds.

A day Keppen said he would like to forget was June 25, 2003. That's the day when water users thought it was going to be a repeat of the summer of 2001. The Bureau announced the A Canal was going to be shut down for almost a week, essentially ending the growing season two months underway. The shut-down was called off later that and the crisis avoided.

During that day, Keppen was on the phone with leaders across the country, explaining the concerns of water users.

Keppen is skilled at listening and communicating, said Dave Solem, a water user board member. On that day he put those skills to use.

Solem said Keppen met with the full board at least once a month and often with many of the water users' subcommittees. From those meetings he was able to express a broad spectrum of opinions, he said, while keeping a focus for the water users.

"We won't find another Dan Keppen to guide the water users association," Solem said, "but we will find someone to continue on the work he started."

He not only knew who to listen to, he knew who to talk to.

On Keppen's desk are three Rolodexes bursting with business cards. Two are from his prior jobs. One is just from contacts he has meet in his three years in the Basin.

Next to the Rolodexes is a chrome-plated "magic nut," given to him by Kirk Rodgers. The nut, taken from a turbine support at Folsom Dam in California, can be used to fix anything, once.

"I almost used it that day in June 2003," Keppen said.

Welcome to the Basin

That day in 2003 brought back emotions and memories of 2001, which Keppen experienced from afar and then residually once he moved to Klamath Falls.

His introduction to the hardships of those in Basin agriculture didn't come at an irrigator meeting or a conference with the Bureau. It came at a hair salon.

In his first visit to town, he went get his hair trimmed. The woman working the scissors said she had been a farmer's wife and that the water issues in 2001 dried up the family's business so she had to start cutting hair on the side to make ends meet.

He said he has also heard stories from farmers and ranchers in the water users, many whose roots run deep in the Basin. Once he had moved to the Basin, Keppen said he found out how close some of the water users were to each other when he went to a party with the likes of Kandra and Gasser.

"They had gone to kindergarten together," he said. "You don't see that in a lot of areas. ... I think that is one of the reasons the community was so tight in 2001."

"Water Boy"

Aptly, on Keppen's wall is a poster of Adam Sandler's movie "Water Boy."

Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the Bureau in Sacramento, gave it to him back when Keppen was with the Bureau.

He has kept the moniker as the face and voice of the water users.

"Dan provided a lot of really smart leadership," McCracken said. "He really understood the history of water in the West and in the Klamath area."

Keppen came in at a time with the Project was in turmoil and did a good job in the circumstances, McCracken said.

Although they don't agree on many issues, Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said he respects Keppen and could often find common ground.

"I'm going to miss him," Spain said. "I think he brought an element of rational discourse and experience to the water users association that is going to be hard to replace."

But Keppen isn't going completely away from the water issues. It's hard for him to stay away from water. He already has offers for work from other agricultural groups in the Basin and he will be training his replacement and then working on some projects for the water users.

Kandra and Gasser both said Keppen has put projects and systems in motion to keep the water users association going strong. Soon they will find out what life is like without him as their executive director.

"It doesn't really matter if I am here or not," Keppen said. "The association is solid."

 

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