boy' swaps hot seat for family
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
"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
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
"I think it is really
hard on families," she said.
Name: Dan Gary Keppen
Birthplace: Appleton, Wis.
Parents: Gary and Marleen Keppen, Klamath
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
Married: To Dena Dixon in 1989 in
Susanville, where he had met here in high
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
Keppen often meet with members of the Bush
administration, Congress, the California and Oregon
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
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
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
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
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."
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
He has kept the moniker as the face and voice of the
"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,
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
"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
"It doesn't really matter if I am here or not,"
Keppen said. "The association is solid."