Invoking past standoffs and talking about force, water activists muster in Southern Oregon

Damon Arthur
Redding Record Searchlight
Cattle dog Bee waits for his owner Ken Smith during a meeting of Klamath area farmers near the A Canal in Klamath Falls, Oregon, in protest of water rights restrictions imposed by the Bureau of Reclamation as drought conditions limit water in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

KLAMATH FALLS, OREGON — Dan Nielsen was there 20 years ago during the last standoff between Klamath Basin farmers and the federal government — and he's ready to do it again.

"We came in here and took control. And then we got kicked out. And then we stayed on, we stayed right here," said Nielsen, pointing his finger and jabbing downward to where he was sitting.

"Right here" is a dirt lot adjacent to a fenced-in complex known as "A Canal," which is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The series of control gates and channels allow bureau officials to control the water that flows into the irrigation canals that make up the federal Klamath Water Project.

Nielsen and a handful of other volunteers are keeping vigil next door to the facility at what they call the "Water Crisis Information Center" in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

The group has set up a large red-and-white striped canopy that resembles a circus tent. The information center is festooned with American flags, Gadsden flags ("Don't Tread on Me"), banners with "We the People" written in large script and "The U.S. Constitution Fifth Amendment." The latter guarantees the right to due process of law and bars the government from taking private property for public use without just compensation.

As for the crisis, Nielsen and others say that was created when the Bureau of Reclamation cut back water deliveries to farmers in the region. Nielsen said the bureau is withholding water that belongs to the farmers, although the activists admit legal efforts to enforce that claim have so far failed.

Federal regulators who shut off water to A Canal have said the decision was forced by extreme drought and the need to balance the water demands of farmers with threatened and endangered fish species in the Upper Klamath Lake and Klamath River, according to the Associated Press.

Tensions rise amid drought

The intake to A Canal in Klamath Falls, Oregon, has been closed by the Bureau of Reclamation over the objections of area farmers down stream.

This year, as the drought has tightened its grip on the region, farmers were only allocated 33,000 acre-feet of water by the bureau. 

In a typical year, a full allocation would be about 350,000 acre-feet, according to Mark Johnson, deputy director of the Klamath Water Users Association.

"That's why we're pissed, because we own the water and it's deeded to our land, and the federal government is stealing it. People don't get that part of it," Nielsen said.

Grant Knoll, who along with Nielsen purchased the lot next to the A Canal, said farmers have exhausted their legal efforts to get the water so they feel they are left with no other choice but to take it by force.

Nielsen said taking the water would entail breaking the lock on the gates to the facility and using a crane to remove the large metal bulkheads that keep the water from flowing into the canal.

But he won't say when that will happen.

"You never tell the enemy when you're going to attack," Nielsen said.

So they wait, and in the meantime, they spread the word about their cause. At the center, they hand out information sheets and pamphlets. There are also weekly meetings of the People's Rights Network.

When water deliveries to farmers were cut in 2001, demonstrators forced open the canal’s headgates three times before federal marshals arrived. The feds stayed all summer.

'Prepared to defend freedom'

Kristen Clark, an area assistant for the local chapter of the network, said the information center has attracted widespread attention not only for the cause of farm water, but the nationwide battle against what they say has become government tyranny.

"When you fear the government, it's tyranny," Nielsen said. "It says in the Constitution a well-run government fears the people. That's how it should be. It's the other way around now."

Over the past few weeks, Clark has fielded dozens of calls from reporters at news outlets from all over the country, she said. 

"People are talking nationally, globally, about what is happening here right now," Clark told a group of about 60 people who gathered at the center Thursday night for one of their weekly meetings.

The People's Rights Network was first organized in Idaho in response to COVID-19 mask rules and other government-mandated safety regulations. Since then, however, it has grown in its scope 

Grant Knoll, left, Ammon Bundy and Dan Nielsen pose for a photo last summer in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Knoll and Nielsen say they are gearing up for a standoff with the federal government over irrigation water for farmers in the Klamath Basin.

The group is led by Ammon Bundy, a property rights advocate who drew national attention in 2016 for his role in a 42-day armed standoff with the U.S. government at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon. 

Although Bundy was arrested and tried on weapons and conspiracy charges, he and other defendants were acquitted by a jury, the Los Angeles Times reported

One of the posters in the information tent includes a quote attributed to Robert LaVoy Finicum, who was killed during the standoff in a confrontation with law enforcement agents at a roadblock.

"There are things more important than your life and freedom is one of them. I am prepared to defend freedom," the poster says.

Knoll said his group in Southern Oregon may ask Bundy to come in and help them if they have a standoff this year.

“He’s our backup,” Knoll said recently.

Clark told the group on Thursday they have to stand up to the federal government for their water rights.

"If they do this to us again like they did 20 years ago, they're going to continue to do this around the country," Clark said.

Merrill, Oregon, Mayor Bill Carlson, left and Water Crisis Information Center spokesperson Kristine Clark speak to a group during a Water Crisis Information Center gathering Thursday night in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Cynthia Moore of Klamath Falls, who is also a member of the People's Rights Network, said she felt the government has a larger plan by cutting off water to farmers.

"This is a government-forced water shortage, which is going to lead to a government-forced food shortage and you will lose your property," Moore said.

Damon Arthur is the Record Searchlight’s resources and environment reporter. He is among the first on the scene at breaking news incidents, reporting real time on Twitter at @damonarthur_RS. Damon is part of a dedicated team of journalists who investigate wrongdoing and find the unheard voices to tell the stories of the North State. He welcomes story tips at 530-338-8834 and damon.arthur@redding.com. Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today!