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Oct. 28, 2021

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California, Oregon braced for another extremist water rebellion. Why it’s calm, so far

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Council member Clayton Dumont, left, and tribal Chairman Don Gentry stand next to the Sprague River, which flows to Upper Klamath Lake.
Council member Clayton Dumont, left, and tribal Chairman Don Gentry stand next to the Sprague River, which flows to Upper Klamath Lake. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Anti-government activists seemed primed for a violent clash with federal authorities this summer in the Klamath Basin along the California-Oregon border.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation had shut off water for most of the region’s 1,400 farms, denying access to the same irrigation canal in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where during a drought two decades earlier, activists tried to pry open its headgates and clashed with U.S. marshals.

The local activists, some of them farmers, were warning that Ammon Bundy, the anti-government extremist whose family led standoffs between armed militia members and federal agents in Oregon and Nevada, was “coming soon.”

Klamath Falls seemed primed to explode, the next major clash after the Jan. 6 riots in the U.S. Capitol building.

But it didn’t.

Locals say attendance at the Klamath gatherings at a red-and-white circus tent activists had set up beside the canal’s headgates had been falling steadily since it popped up in May. Then earlier this month, the “People’s Rights” activists quietly took the tent down.

Grant Knoll and Dan Nielsen, who recently bought the property where the tent was erected, were once eager to talk to reporters. They didn’t return messages last week.

Talk of rebellion over federal water policy, at least for now, seems to have waned in the Klamath Basin, even though farmers still haven’t received water from the federal canal and frustration hasn’t gone away over water being kept in the watershed to protect endangered suckers and salmon.

The Klamath Basin rebellion appears to have fizzled in large part because local agricultural and community leaders spoke out strongly against it.

Among them was Ben DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association. He and his wife, Erika, farm wheat and alfalfa and raise cattle on California’s side of the border near the small city of Tulelake. Like most family farmers in this part of the state, the DuVals had to dramatically cut back production this year and they’re worried about whether they’ll be able to keep the farm running after the Bureau of Reclamation shut off water to Klamath Project irrigators.

Nonetheless, Ben DuVal stepped up when he sensed the tensions were too high in the Klamath. He moved to soften the rhetoric before the situation exploded.

In May, as the federal government announced no water would flow down the “A Canal” for the first time since it was constructed in 1907, DuVal’s association put out a statement to its members condemning any hostilities.

The association urged local activists to stop posting the home addresses of federal water employees on social media, and it condemned people “being recruited from other parts of the country to participate in demonstrations,” a direct reference to Bundy and his followers.

In an interview, DuVal said he was glad to see it paid off and that Bundy stayed away.

“I was very opposed to Mr. Bundy coming to town, not just because of how extreme some of his viewpoints are,” he said. “Mostly it was just because I felt that he’s not affected by our water shut off here. And it’s the people in this community who need to have a message in order to fix this issue.”

The region’s Republican congressman, Rep. Cliff Bentz of Oregon, also urged activists to keep things peaceful. He told local media outlets that a revolt wouldn’t be helpful to farmers as they sought federal drought relief funds.

“We all support the right to protest, protest all day long, but don’t step over the legal line,” Bentz told Oregon Public Broadcasting in June.

Bentz said the focus should be on getting critical federal drought relief funds “to try to keep everybody from going bankrupt as we fight our way through this summer.” So far, the federal government has promised at least $30 million in drought relief money to Klamath Basin farmers.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes local law enforcement leaders also were mindful of the possibility of an uprising, and they, too, were trying to tamp down the threat of unrest.

Emails show that Klamath County Sheriff Chris Kaber was in regular communication with FBI agents and Department of Interior law enforcement officers about the possible threat of “outside agitators” coming into town.

Kaber received emailed updates from them on Bundy’s whereabouts. He also requested the federal agents keep him alerted when they were in town, and they replied that they would.

On May 14, Kaber sent an email to his commanders telling them to be mindful that things could get ugly, and he urged his staff not to exacerbate any tensions.

“‘Outsiders’ are by nature attention seekers and if we can do whatever it takes not to fall for the bait they may throw out, that would be great,” Kaber wrote in an email The Sacramento Bee obtained through a public records request.

Tribes watched with worry

In the summer of 2001, when the federal government closed the A Canal to protect endangered suckers upstream in Upper Klamath Lake, local farmers and other activists armed with saws and blowtorches breached the chain-link fence and opened the headgates.

The protesters forced the gates open three times but were eventually blocked by U.S. marshals, who spent months guarding the federal facility in Klamath Falls.

National agricultural and property rights activists took up their cause, decrying that fish were being protected while the federal government put family farms were being put out of business. At one point, 10,000 farmers and their supporters from around the U.S. converged on the region to hold symbolic “bucket brigade” protests.

It was a tense time for local Native American tribes, who said they were harassed for being “sucker-loving Indians” and had their properties vandalized in 2001.

Two species of suckers living in Upper Klamath Lake are sacred to the Klamath Tribes, a federally recognized nation made up of the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin band of Northern Paiute Indians. For years, they’ve sought to keep more water in Upper Klamath for suckers. The lake serves as the primary storage facility for the Klamath Project and its waters are diverted down the canal where the activists had erected their tent.

At the same time, three of California’s largest Native American tribes, the Yurok, Karuk and the Hoopa Valley, have sought to keep more water in the Klamath River downstream of the Klamath farmland to protect salmon and other fish that they, too, consider vital to their livelihoods and cultural identities.

Mindful of what happened two decades ago, Native American tribes in the Klamath Basin had been watching the recent protests with worry, fearing that farmers’ anger might again carry over to hostility to tribe members.

But Don Gentry, the chairman of the Chiloquin, Ore.-based Klamath Tribes, said that aside from “a few ugly Facebook posts,” there have been no other hostilities toward his members so far this drought.

“I think some of the key folks in ag really have had a similar message: that (a revolt is) not helpful,” he said. “I think that helped to tamp it down.”

Karuk Tribe spokesman Craig Tucker said it also probably helped ease tensions that this year the entire Klamath River watershed is suffering — from its headwaters in the Oregon forests above Upper Klamath Lake to where it flows into the Pacific Ocean on California’s rugged North Coast.

Already, the downstream tribes are reporting that their biologists are finding troubling numbers of young salmon dying in the river. The Klamath Tribes fear a die-off of the suckers they call c’waam and koptu may soon follow.

“It’s the worst hydrologic conditions in history, worse than we’ve ever seen on the Klamath,” Tucker said. “Whose fault is it that it didn’t rain?”

While the tribes and the irrigators have had their disagreements in the past, Tucker said he was pleased to see the local agricultural community de-escalate the tensions.

“I think it says a lot about the folks around Klamath Falls that they didn’t want what Bundy was selling,” he said.

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