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Environment, Energy and Transportation

‘I Can’t Make It Rain’

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Holly Dillemuth
/
JPR
Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-OR) speaks to farmers and ranchers in Klamath Falls on Thursday, June 3, 2021

When Rep. Cliff Bentz visited Klamath Falls Thursday, he brought promises of government aid for farmers who won't be getting irrigation water from the federal Klamath Project this season. And he urged irrigators to resist the temptation to take matters into their own hands.

At a gathering in Klamath Falls on Thursday afternoon, Rep. Cliff Bentz couldn’t offer hope of water for Klamath Basin ranchers and irrigators this summer, but he wanted them to know he’s trying.

Bentz, a first-term Republican who represents Oregon’s expansive Second Congressional District, spoke to dozens of local farmers and their families at the Klamath County Fairgrounds. He discussed how he and California Republican Doug LaMalfa are seeking $57 million in overall federal aid for those affected by the drought in the Klamath region. More than $46 million of that would go to farmers and irrigation districts in the basin. The rest would be doled out to wildlife refuges, commercial fishermen and tribes.

Bentz said he’s been asking Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland if farmers can have at least a small portion of their regular allocation. He says he was told that would lead to lawsuits for violating the Endangered Species Act.

Water in Upper Klamath Lake is being withheld from the federally-operated Klamath Project this year because federal officials have determined that lake levels are so low, any release of water would risk extinction for two species of endangered sucker fish which the Klamath Tribes consider crucial to their culture.

Bentz told irrigators that the current interpretation of the law, in light of the Endangered Species Act, is that farmers in the Klamath Project have a right to use the water stored in Upper Klamath Lake but that it’s not technically their water. He said for farmers and ranchers’ purposes, this could be seen as one and the same.

But he affirmed that the federal government is within its rights to enforce federal law in this case until a more nuanced solution is found.

“The lack of clarity is what makes the situation so difficult right now for Bureau of Reclamation because they’re charged with enforcing the (federal) law,” Bentz said. “I want to assure you that I’ve been asserting your argument … saying, ‘Please, share the water.”

While he’s working on the issues from Washington, Bentz directed local residents affected by the drought to federal agencies like the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, who were on hand at the meeting to show farmers how to apply for funding to get them through the summer. He also assured them they are not alone, and are among 72 million Americans impacted by a deepening drought across the West.

Bentz was elected last November to replace retiring 11-term Republican Greg Walden. At the gathering Thursday, Bentz claimed a deep background in water law, especially issues affecting eastern Oregon, and he spoke of time spent in recent months bringing the farmer’s needs for water to the attention of fellow representatives in Washington, D.C.

Not everyone at the meeting was satisfied with promises of federal relief money.

“Cattle cannot eat welfare checks,” one attendee told Bentz during a question-and-answer session.

“Well, I can’t make it rain,” Bentz answered.

Bentz said federal aid is a short-term solution and that an even higher priority should be placed on a long-term solution to water issues in the Basin.

“Somehow this community has to sort this out,” Bentz said.

Bentz said the challenge in the Basin is how to get everybody going in the same direction.

He referenced the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, a previous attempt at a long term solution to water issues in the Basin, which failed to pass Congress in 2015.

“You took a run at that several years ago and it didn’t work out,” Bentz said. “Now we can try again.”

That agreement was announced to great fanfare in late 2013 at a gathering at Oregon Institute of Technology attended by then-Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and other state and federal officials. The deal resulted from a hard, years-long negotiation among the Basin’s stakeholders that required painful compromises on all sides. But the measure died when the bill to fund it failed in Congress. A major factor in the collapse of that agreement was the lack of support from the region’s Congressional representative at the time, Greg Walden.

At the Thursday gathering, Bentz also addressed an effort by two local farmers who have set up a tent on property they recently bought next to the headgates of the Klamath Project’s main irrigation canal. Those headgates control the water flow from Upper Klamath Lake into the "A" Canal. The pair are coordinating with a local branch of People’s Rights, a group founded last year by militant activist Ammon Bundy. The men say they intend to breach the fenced federal facility and turn on the water.

“There’s been some people who have said, ‘Well, if it’s our water, we should take matters into our own hands and take it.’ And I would counsel against that for two reasons,” Bentz said during the question-and-answer session. “They could go to jail and two, it’s going to hurt my ability to get money for the Basin.”

Bentz is in the area this week but says he has no plans to visit the encampment next to the headgates.