Jim McCarthy of WaterWatch Discusses the Klamath Basin on OPB’s Think Out Loud

By Elizabeth Castillo and David Miller  |  July 13, 2021  |  Oregon Public Broadcasting

David Miller from Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud spoke with Jim McCarthy, Southern Oregon program director for WaterWatch, about our longstanding work to protect and restore waterfowl and wetlands in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, and took a deep dive into solutions to the region’s crippling water woes.

This week, Think Out Loud has traveled to the Klamath Basin to have conversations with people affected by the severe drought in the region. The Klamath Basin is home to six National Wildlife Refuges which support a diverse population of resident and migratory wildlife, including over three quarters of the Pacific Flyway waterfowl. As multiple parties vie for water, what happens to the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex? Jim McCarthy, Southern Oregon program director for WaterWatch of Oregon, shares details about what happens when a group of refuges fall further down a list of water needs.

David Miller:  In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt created the nation’s very first waterfowl refuge not far from here. The Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is now one of a network of six refuges in the Klamath Basin. Like so much of the land here, in this historic drought, it is parched. We visited the area around the refuge yesterday with Jim McCarthy. He’s been a long time environmental activist in the region as a Southern Oregon program director for WaterWatch. He first took us to the 80 Canal which is right alongside Highway 97. The canal is part of the enormous water moving and storing infrastructure created by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in work that started about 115 years ago. I asked Jim what was being reclaimed.

Jim McCarthy:  It was being reclaimed from wetlands and salmon habitat and it was being reclaimed from Native American tribes who had made an excellent living here for millennia. Obviously this was an absolutely massive fishery. So not only did you have the salmon fisheries where you have multiple runs.  Their homeland was up here. The spring run was not only the biggest run in terms of numbers, but the biggest size of the fish, the famous June hogs, and when you’re talking about the taste, it’s just an absolutely delicious fish.

They would come up here to spawn in these incredible spring water fed rivers and tributaries that literally just shoot up out of the ground and are so cold and so clean. But the lake is cut off now. So when they built this railroad dyke in the 1910s it stopped all flow into Lower Klamath. So by the 1920s, the peat moss dried out, lightning lit the peat moss on fire and, like today, the winds would drive ash into Klamath Falls. They closed schools because the air quality was so bad.  By the 20s, these vast areas of peat soils were burning on a regular basis. And they found that they could not farm it because it wasn’t the right pH and balance. Also they would be driving the tractors and fall in to caverns created by peat fires commonly burning underground for months and carve out this spot. And so the refuge was actually destroyed once already.

Miller:  Where are you going to take us next?

McCarthy:  I can take you down to the refuge funds to see a dead lake.

Miller:  Let’s do it. Okay, here we are. What should I notice besides this tornado of dust?

McCarthy:  It’s a dust devil running across the parched fields of Lower Klamath National Lake Refuge over here. You can see they’re dried out. They’re not delivering to this area either. They haven’t delivered to this area, in drought years, for many, many years. In a normal national wildlife refuge you have what’s called “coop lands,” which is an area of the refuge dedicated to growing grains that ducks like those that hunters like to hunt. So these are basically bait fields. where certain kinds of grain are grown.  The farmer gets a very cheap rate to rent it and in return, he knocks down or leaves standing some proportion of the grain in the field. He takes the other half. Or he or she pastures cows. And since geese will use it to eat, cows and geese can eat the same thing on a National Wildlife Refuge in the rest of the country. What’s different about Tooley Lake is it’s the only National Wildlife Refuge in the whole country that allows growing intensive row crops like onions and potatoes. You don’t have that on any other National Wildlife Refuge in the country because it doesn’t benefit the host of wildlife that need the very scarce protected refuge lands.

We have another dust devil off in the distance. Up close we have the parched, cracked mud of the National Wildlife Refuge with, soon to be, desiccated wetland plants stretching as far as the eye can see. We used to have a very large native lake fish population here, just like in Tooley Lake and the Upper Klamath, that fed the populations of Modoc and Klamath tribal folks before white settlement and the draining of the lake. But now there’s not a single fish alive in this whole refugee as you can see. I mean if there is, it’s the toughest fish alive.

Miller:  We talked earlier with Clayton du Mont, who is a member of the Klamath Tribes Tribal Council. One of the things that he talked about is groundwater. And he said that farmers still don’t have enough, even if they’re getting water that you’re arguing should be going to the refuge. So they’re digging more and/or deeper wells right now. What does that mean for surface water?

McCarthy:  The U.S. Geological Survey has done a lot of work on this basin and they have written a report which the Bureau of Reclamation has ignored. The USGS has shown that the surface water and groundwater are connected. So when you draw more groundwater during droughts like everyone does, there’s a limit that’s sustainable. If you take more than what is sustainable, the groundwater is not going to be there or it’s going to cost you double, or you’re going to have to drill down deeper.

For the little lady living next door to you or your farm, her well that she’s had in her family for 150 years is going to go dry and it’s never going to come back. She’s not going to have the money, like a farmer does from the state or the feds, to drill her well deeper. And she’s not going to get the check from the government to pay for the cost of pulling that water up from however deep she would have to dig.

The total train wreck happens where the rain falls, the snow falls, it comes down the hill and there’s this giant sucking sound because the surface water is being lost over time to groundwater. So we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. We’re making the future worse by ignoring the groundwater problem now, in basins all across the country. It’s not something unique to the Klamath Basin.

Our political leaders have seized on digging deeper as their salvation in this problem. They don’t want to do the hard work of passing “surface water demand reduction” packages that are unpopular with one interest in this Basin, the Klamath Project Irrigators, who want to maintain an absolute 330,000 acre-feet minimum into the project, meaning the project doesn’t shrink. Everybody else can shrink, the fishery can shrink, the refuges can disappear. The Upper Basin irrigators can dry up and blow away.  But the Klamath Project is going to stay at 330,000 acre feet minimum during a drought.

Miller:  You’ve been doing this work in various ways and with a lot of passion for about 20 years since 2001. So has the situation gotten better in that time?

McCarthy:  I think it definitely has gotten much better in terms of the Native American voices being heard more clearly and at a much higher level. I think that’s extremely important. The more that occurs the better. The more voice they have, the more ability and power they have to direct and influence processes that determine whether or not they will continue as promised through treaty and in the way they deserve to continue. I think that is very heartening. But it’s been a very hard thing to see. During protests, people would just yell at them, “You don’t exist, you don’t exist,” in front of their children!

Miller:  If I understand you correctly, your basic prescription is relatively simple. We need fewer people sucking water out of this system to grow potatoes, alfalfa, horseradish and to feed cows.  That needs to happen less. In a simple way is that the heart of your prescription?

McCarthy:  The heart of the prescription is that there’s not enough water and too many users. So you need an equitable buyout of willing sellers to reduce the overall demand throughout the basin. You can have an agricultural sector that is smaller but does not lurch from one federal disaster package to another, but instead exists in a steady state that is sustainable. Same thing with the fishery and the National Wildlife Refuges. This is literally the Everglades of the West, an unparalleled wetland complex. It is also one of the places where you have mass die-offs of waterfowl due to lack of water on a scale you don’t really see in other places.

Miller:  What’s the mechanism that you envision for getting to that reduction?

McCarthy:  We had a federal bill like that in 2002 which passed through the Senate on a bipartisan basis. Republican Oregon Senators Smith and Wyden passed a $180 million package for the Klamath that would have allowed for comprehensive demand reduction among other solutions in the basin. It passed through the Senate. It was killed in the House by Congressman Greg Walden, who is now retired. But that package is not an unusual package for the United States. There are industries that over-expand all the time and need a recalibration, such as the fishermen on the coast and other places where they use U.S. taxpayer money to have an orderly buyout of a willing seller.

Miller:  Like the farmers who came here from North Dakota who were told “Come here, we have water for you.”

McCarthy:  I don’t know who they were or where they got the folks from.  But the federal government clearly has an obligation to this basin to bring solutions and resources, not just because of the farmers they brought here but because of the tribes they promised fishing and hunting in perpetuity.  Those people, Native Americans, are equal as well. The alternative is playing chicken with the future. So right now we have a situation where we’re going to run out of groundwater. We can’t keep on putting off the rights of the Native Americans sometime into the future. They have senior water rights “in time immemorial.”  That’s a fact. You’re not going to get around it. So if you say, “Well, I’m going to hold off for something else,” are you saying you hold off until after we stop treating Native Americans as full citizens again? What’s the solution other than acknowledging they have time immemorial water rights? We need to work toward a solution that acknowledges that as fact.

I’ve seen extraordinary acts of generosity and willingness to compromise. But I haven’t seen it from the Klamath Project because the reality is you have to demand reduction. And there was a time when I first worked in the basin that I worked with a lot of farmers called The Willing Sellers. I took them to Washington, D.C.,  and they would say, “We believe that the other folks in the basin have a right to make a living too, and everybody needs water. We can sell this portion of our lands or that portion of lands so we can give up this surface water right.” They weren’t saying that they were going to leave. They’ve got all these different things that they may be leasing. A lot of rural people have many different irons in the fire just to try to keep themselves afloat.

Miller:  But the “willing buyers.” You take them to D.C. and —

McCarthy:  I took them to D.C., but they stopped sticking their heads up because they kept getting the end of their heads knocked back.

Miller:  By whom?

McCarthy:  Well, there’s a lot of social pressure in the project not to agree to demand reduction. I mean at the end of the day, it’s not the farmers. You can talk to farmers who are ideologically opposed to demand reduction. That’s fine but they’re not going to disappear because their neighbor sold their water right, or because the lands that used to be alfalfa next them turned into oak woodland or cottonwood savannah or whatever.

The people who don’t want to see demand reduction in the Klamath Basin are the folks who sell pesticides, herbicides and implements like tractors. Those people are going to take a hit. Farmer Ted is not going to lose out because Farmer Bob across the street sold his water right. That just doesn’t happen. It’s not going to happen. But the folks who sell pesticides here are maybe not going to be able to have two country club memberships. They’re just going to have one. That’s literally what we’re talking about here. I’ve been working for 20 years and that’s how I see it. I am sympathetic to farmers wanting to keep their lands. But I’m also sympathetic to the farmers who say, “I should be free to make a decision about whether or not I want to live through this anymore.”

Miller:  What’s giving you hope right now?

McCarthy:  The more we see marginalized voices be given voice, I think that’s all to the good. I think a lot of times people just rushed in. They talked to the land-owning white guys, and those were the ones who really drove the story and even now are driving the story. We have a situation where we’re looking around and the fish are dying, the refuges are dying. There’s no water for irrigated agriculture. Why can’t we just put up some money and let people decide on their own if they want to sell their water to the federal government.  But they haven’t even let us do that.

So if an argument is that we’re going to be unfair to the farmers by giving them the option to take a check if they choose to, that’s their right. They can choose to do that.  Just because a pesticide dealer doesn’t want to have a slightly smaller paycheck at the end of the year, that’s not a reason to destroy a whole basin. You put up the money, see who wants to demand reduction, and if somebody has to drive an Audi instead of a Mercedes to their pesticide store — I’m sorry.

Miller:  Thanks very much for your time.

McCarthy:  (laughing) You’re welcome.

This edition of Think Out Loud originally aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting on July 13, 2022.