Ammon Bundy Could Inflame Fight Over Water In Oregon, Some Fear. Others Hope He Will. 

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May 29, 2021 7:00 a.m.

The fight over access to water in Southern Oregon is tense enough as it is: On May 12, the federal government announced that no water at all would be passing through a canal that typically irrigates tens of thousands of acres of farmland in Oregon and California.

But adding Ammon Bundy to the mix would only inflame the situation, some fear. For others, that’s the whole point. 

“The reason they don’t want Ammon Bundy here is because he draws a crowd, and he’s beat them,” Dan Nielsen, one of two men who’s set up an encampment next to the canal, told TPM Thursday. Bundy’s “Peoples Rights” network has helped run a “Water Crisis Info Center” out of a large tent on the property, and Bundy told TPM he would come to the area if asked. 

The tent is near the spot where angry farmers forcibly opened the canal gates 20 years ago, when a similar dispute with the federal government came to a head.

“His dad and his family beat them down there in Nevada, and then they beat out up there in Malheur,” Nielsen added, referring to two prior standoffs involving Bundy and the federal government — in which the anti-government activists got off mostly unscathed, despite instigating an armed confrontation with the feds, and, in the latter case, occupying Malheur National Wildlife Refuge with a gun-toting crew for several weeks. One leader of the Malheur occupation, LaVoy Finicum, was killed by law enforcement

“They got exonerated, all their charges dropped, so who’s right or wrong? I mean, that’s why the federal government doesn’t want Bundy here, because he’s educated us how to win and how to beat them. We’re not going to win this in court.” 

‘We Didn’t Set This Up’ 

Now, as in 2001, the Endangered Species Act requires limiting irrigation water for the sake of endangered fish considered sacred by local tribal nations, the federal government says.

Bundy told TPM the situation with the Oregon canal, which affects stakeholders in multiple states and tribal nations, was “the very same thing” as what happened in Nevada and the Malheur refuge: The federal government stomping on farmers’ and ranchers’ rights.

But to experts with years of experience in the area, that dramatically oversimplifies the situation in the Klamath River Basin, where the federal government has made conflicting commitments and undertaken massive infrastructure changes for over a century.

“You know, we didn’t set this up,” Klamath Tribal Council Chair Don Gentry told TPM. “It’s all the many years of past management and overdevelopment of irrigated agriculture. So we’re just kind of placed in this really uncomfortable situation.”

Ultimately, Gentry said, a long-term solution requires down-sizing the region’s irrigated agriculture footprint. “There’s just too many people after too little water, especially with climate change in the mix.”

“I think that’s part of the reason you’ve seen these expressions of opposition to the Bundys, and to [B.J.] Soper’s outfit,” Oregon Wild Conservation Director Steve Pedery told TPM, referring to the lead Peoples Rights figure in Oregon. “Because they know that there isn’t an ending where you can satisfy those demands in tune with a reality-based world.” 

Craig Tucker, a natural resources consultant for the Karuk Tribe, told TPM that despite years of tough legal battles between tribes, irrigators and the federal government, the various interests competing for water resources in the Klamath River Basin have generally been respectful of one another. 

“Even when we’re suing each other, we have found ways to get together and make real attempts at what I would call the adult conversations to come up with strategies to try to mitigate the impacts of drought,” he said.

‘The Fish Aren’t Paying Too Many Bills’ 

Still, the situation in the basin grew much more dire this month, when the feds announced that they would be sealing the “A Canal” entirely. At a meeting of the Klamath Irrigation District, which would typically be responsible for delivering that water to farmers, board member Dave Hamel tore into the federal Bureau of Reclamation officials tuning in remotely. 

“You’re going to get paid, and you know these farmers aren’t, and they’re not going to be able to make their payments,” Hamel told Jared Bottcher of the Bureau of Reclamation. “The fish aren’t paying too many bills down there.”

“So, either the federal government needs to open up their checkbook then and take your $15 million and shove it up your ass and make it about $150 million, to take care of these people in this project,” he added, referring to an early federal assistance figure. “Or you’re just– I’m tired of the smoke you’re trying to blow up my ass, it ain’t working.”

Grant Knoll, the other landowner behind the canal-side encampment, is also a board member for the Klamath Irrigation District. He told local station NBC5 that he would be willing to take matters into his own hands. 

“We’re going to have rallies and protests, and if it takes opening up the headgates again, you know, that’s what we’ll do,” Knoll said. 

Gentry, the Klamath Tribal Council chair, recalled the situation in 2001, when he said members of the Klamath tribes and the endangered fish they hold sacred were being demonized locally.

“Those are things we hope don’t happen” this time, he said. “We’re encouraging folks to be safe.”

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