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Ken Rykbost, center, shares a laugh with Klamath County Commissioner Bill Brown, right, and about 100 people who turned out to honor him.

33 years of water and potatoes
Friends honor spud breeder, devil’s advocate in water issues

Tam Moore  Capital Press Staff Writer

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – They kidded Ken Rykbost about showing up at 7:30 a.m. even in the two years since he officially retired as superintendent of Oregon State University’s Klamath Experiment Station.

But last week, the morning after about 100 community members and folks from the potato industry gave Rykbost a for-real retirement party – his last day as a part-time part of the station staff was Feb. 28 – there was Rykbost at his desk before 8 a.m.

“It was fun,” he said.

Rykbost has 33 years wrapped up in potato research, 20 years of it at the Klamath station. He was part of getting the classic Shepody variety ready for prime time as a processing potato. While on the Cornell University staff he sought the cause of nitrates in rural wells, and here he sorted through thousands of red potato varieties to help local farmers sharpen their niche-market offerings.

But for the community leaders who gathered at Antonio’s in Klamath Falls, it was Rykbost the investigator of water problems that got the most attention. He was part of an OSU team that looked at nutrient loading in the Upper Klamath Lake watershed. Then in 2003, two years after the cutoff of federal irrigation water that dried up crops at the experiment station and the more than 1,000 basin farms, Rykbost produced a large report on historic water flows in the Klamath Basin.

Among his findings, presented at public meetings and criticized by some involved in the ongoing Klamath water controversies, is that in most years the 10 million-acre basin is quite dry in the summer. Stream flows in August and September are low, without an upstream irrigation system; data indicate flows would be even lower in the driest years.

State Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, said he has never heard complaints about the content of Rykbost’s water papers, rather “they are trying to assassinate him as the messenger.”

County Commissioner Bill Brown, who presented a plaque on behalf of local government, described Rykbost as a man of “courage.” The Oregon Potato Commission and Klamath Water Users Association both recognized Rykbost for service.

Rykbost talked briefly, said he didn’t really want to be quoted, and as quickly as the formal stuff was over, he beamed while greeting person after person in the crowded room.

Colleagues said they didn’t think the sometimes-shy Rykbost would agree to a retirement party. In an interview, he admitted attention is not his favorite thing.

The next morning, he could say it was fun. And he could talk about his new passion for varmint hunting that included a gift at the dinner of 500 rounds of special .17 caliber ammunition and a slick Filson field bag to carry it in.

Rykbost also promised not to be silent as he studies more of the mountains of water data being generated as stakeholders seek resolutions to water issues.

Tam Moore is based in Medford, Ore. His e-mail address is tmoore@capitalpress.com




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