Department of Interior official Alan Mikkelsen — who spent the week in Klamath Falls and Medford — said he will return to the Basin next month to continue water talks, but that he has no plans to reach out to the Klamath Tribes based on their last interaction.
Mikkelsen, senior adviser to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on water and western resources, said he's met with a group of stakeholders at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office in Medford on Monday for what he calls a “coalition of the willing.”
The group includes Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs, along with three downriver tribes and the Klamath Water Users Association, and some Siskiyou County supervisors.
“We don't have all the parties in the Basin that are willing to sit down and talk about the future of fish and water management in the Basin, and so we're meeting with those parties who are,” Mikkelsen told the H&N in a wide-ranging interview.
“We've appointed a federal coordination team yesterday afternoon to work with these downriver parties, the KWUA, and county governments, to try to put together an agenda and some ideas for how to structure discussions going forward.
"We're talking about being back here the second week of December to move forward with that.”
The decision to return to the Basin next month is a pivot from Mikkelsen's previous statement that he might back out of water talks due to ongoing litigation by multiple parties.
“On the basis of the response that we've received from the downriver tribes and the irrigators yesterday, we believe that there is a benefit to coming back to the Basin,” he said.
Fish study to be expedited
Mikkelsen's visit to the Basin, his 15th or 16th, he said, comes on the heels of major legislation signed by President Donald Trump. Legislation contains an expedited process for the completion of the biological opinion that serves as a guiding document for water allocation from Upper Klamath Lake.
President Trump said the biological opinion would likely be done in August, while Mikkelsen is shooting for an earlier deadline.
“We're anticipating having that completed by mid-April,” Mikkelsen said.
Mikkelsen declined three times to comment on his involvement in expediting the re-consultation of the biological opinion.
But he was eager to talk about the administration's "middle-of-the-road" approach regarding natural resource management. “I think that's across the board,” he said.
Mikkelsen was also eager to talk about his return visit in December, when he plans to talk water quality issues on Upper Klamath Lake as well as on the river itself. He also plans to talk about projects and studies that might be needed to estimate what the river might look like post-dam removal.
Lack of tribal engagement
On the topic of water talks, Mikkelsen said as far as talks the concept of a long-term agreement the “ball” is now in the tribes' court whether they want to continue working towards a solution.
“We've tried to engage for a year without success, so at some point, we just have to accept that for what it is and move on to the other parties,” he said.
“If we have to, we will focus our attentions from Link River Dam downstream. That doesn't mean that we're abandoning any interest or concerns about Upper Klamath Lake. We're still going to do everything that we can … But it looks like we'll probably be doing that with the willing.”
Personal attacks claimed
Mikkelsen said Wednesday his last communication with the Klamath Tribes was in August during a meeting of the Tribal Council.
He said he felt disrespected during the last meeting and has not requested to meet with the Tribes since that time.
“When you stand in front of the general council for two hours and basically have a very difficult discussion, at some point you have to throw your hands up … There were personal attacks made, there were attacks made on the administration and the president.”
Mikkelsen said there was a “quiet acquiescence” from Tribal Chairman Don Gentry during the meeting, and he feels that the general council was not prepared for his visit.
“I've been from the mouth of the river to the headwater springs and back several times,” Mikkelsen said, “and to have tribal members basically accuse me of just flying in and having some sort of a quick meeting with somebody and flying out without even understanding the Basin, is a little bit … at least irritating.”
Tribal response on of surprise
Gentry agreed the meeting of the Tribe's General Council was contentious in nature due to frustrations felt by tribal members.
“I guess I'm shocked that he has taken it so personal,” Gentry said.
Gentry said he would prefer to talk to Mikkelsen in person about the situation, rather than having a conversation through the media.
“We've made it pretty clear…If folks are talking about a water balance, we don't think that we could even begin those discussions until we see something significant in terms of progress in restoring and protecting the C'waam and Koptu from going extinct,” Gentry said.
“So that's been pretty clearly communicated numerous times. We don't believe that we have any flexibility to even begin those discussions of our members because the priority is protecting the fish.”
Mikkelsen said he and his team have worked diligently over the course of the last year to engage with the Tribes.
“We obtained a negative declaration on the Upper (Klamath) Basin Comprehensive Agreement, which took a substantial amount of work and effort at Interior on our part,” he said. “We have tried to promote the sucker rearing facilities and expand and accelerate the sucker rearing issues … It doesn't seem like whatever we do is ever enough.”
After all this, he said he's still not sure what the Klamath Tribes want.
“At this time, until the Klamath Tribes indicate a willingness to reach out and participate in, like we said, a coalition of the willing, I don't see the utility in continuing those discussions,” Mikkelsen said.
Gentry said he welcomes Mikkelsen to reach out, and expressed an overall uneasiness about the situation. He also emphasized a desire by the Tribes to protect fish and water resources.
“People are looking to us for a solution,” Gentry said. “I think something needs to come forward from others. We need to at least see some commitment to working through those issues. It feels really awkward to me that we're put on the spot.”
When asked if he invited the Tribes to the meeting in Medford or others he held in town, Mikkelsen said he did not.
“They're certainly welcome to sit at the table and participate in the discussions that we had yesterday with all of those other willing parties,” Mikkelsen said.
Litigation a thorny issue
Mikkelsen also said aside from the Klamath Tribes that Klamath Irrigation District has not always been a willing party due to ongoing litigation, but met with board members on both days during his visit, according to KID board member Jerry Enman.
“It raised serious questions in our minds about their willingness to engage in what I would call proactive discussion,” Mikkelsen said of KID's litigation with Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD).
Enman said the KID board was not given any ultimatums during their meeting with Mikkelsen.
Mikkelsen also shared plans to meet with members of the Klamath County Chamber of Commerce, Klamath Water Users Association, individual irrigators, and Klamath Irrigation District officials while in town.
“We're trying to be as inclusive as possible as we engage in these discussions, and I think that the business community has a lot at stake here, frankly,” Mikkelsen. “The controversy and the conflict does not help business," Mikkelsen said. "The business community has just about as much risk here as anybody that we engage."
Heather Tramp, executive director of the chamber, expressed appreciation at Mikkelsen's efforts to work with community leaders to find a solution.
“If you look at our community as an economic ecosystem, we're all connected — it affects downtown (Klamath Falls), it affects businesses in Merrill and Malin," Tramp said.