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Alan Mikkelsen likens the Klamath Basin water negotiations to climbing Mount Everest.

“We’ve just left Base Camp and have a long way to go,” the veteran water negotiator for the Department of Interior told the Herald and News in a sit-down interview Wednesday morning. “We may summit; we may get blown off the mountain. And the unknown is the storms on the horizon.”

One storm that may have “a disastrous effect,” he said is the recent lawsuit by the Klamath Tribes against the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and National Marine Fisheries Service, to keep a certain water level in Upper Klamath Lake for the benefit of endangered shortnosed sucker and Lost River sucker.

That case is before U.S. District Judge William Orrick in San Francisco, who recently ruled against Basin irrigators regarding Klamath River flows.

Irrigation shut down

“If Judge Orrick rules against the federal government, it could shut down all irrigation in the Basin by mid-July,” Mikkelsen said. If that happens, the numerous talks he’s been having with individual stakeholders up and down the Klamath River could be for naught.

Seeking the injunction to maintain lake levels is the Klamath Tribes. Tribal Chairman Don Gentry told the Herald and News that the issue is a matter of extinction for the fish.

“We don’t want to come off as trying to cause harm to anyone, but we have to be focused on preventing the fish from becoming extinct. We don’t have the flexibility to provide water at the expense of our fish and feel our backs are up against the wall on this,” Gentry said.

The issue with the sucker is that adults have been found in the lake, but there’s a lack of juvenile fish, and, as that older group ages, there’s a real danger they won’t reproduce. Biologists are trying to raise juveniles in captivity and release them when their chances for survival are greater.

Extinction concerns

“We tried to get ahead of the extinction issue, knowing it was going to be a tough year,” Gentry said. “That is why we took a real strong position (in the water calls and filing the injunction) knowing that we have to protect the fish. Once they are gone, they are gone.”

The Klamath Water Users Association seeks to dismiss the case before Orrick, believing it is in the wrong court (that it should be in Oregon rather than California) and that the lake levels sought are artificially high. Orrick may rule from the bench at a July 11 hearing on the preliminary injunction.

The once-retired Mikkelsen, now 66, is the Senior Adviser to the Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke for Water and Western Resource Issues. He is hoping to bring the disparate parties together for a long-term water solution.

Since taking on the Klamath Basin last summer, he estimates he’s spent at least one week a month focused on Klamath.

“It is the most complex water issue I’ve dealt with in my career,” he said, noting that tensions and anxiety are high among the stakeholders this summer, due to the recent court decisions and pending litigation.

Meeting, talking

He and his staff have been collecting comments from the various tribes along the Klamath River, the irrigation district members, and individual cattle ranchers in the Upper Basin — all inexorably linked to the water. He’s met separately with each group, but has not had them all at one table.

He hopes to have a framework document or a “roadmap to the future” drawn up by early August that stakeholders can review and then release to the public.

“The comments have been thoughtful, pragmatic, articulate and sometimes emotional,” Mikkelsen said.

He said that the meetings have been in private with various groups to allow them “a safe space” to speak their minds have their desires known.

“We want to make sure what gets submitted and distributed is not going to be used against anyone, especially in litigation, so we are developing a confidentiality agreement.”

Agreement process

Gentry noted that the Klamath Tribes can agree to the principles of the framework, but will be asking Mikkelsen to speak to the tribal general council sometime in August about the specifics. He cautioned that the Tribes wants to see what the process for reaching a water agreement will mean. It’s too early for the Tribes to commit to any binding pact, he said.

One can see why the Basin issue is so complex.

“I don’t think it’s too fine of a point to say this is one of the largest resource complexes in the United States in terms of the complexity, number of players, resources and litigation,” Mikkelsen said.

“I have a background in conflict resolution and strange as it may seem, I really get off on fixing things like this. But this is my Mount Everest,” he said. (Mikkelsen recently negotiated a water pact in New Mexico that he terms a “Mount McKinley,” yet that took only six months to resolve).

The Basin had a solution within its grasp with the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement or KBRA that was sent to Congress for approval a few years back, but failed to get out the House.

No comparison

To compare Mikkelsen’s framework to an agreement with the KBRA would be a mistake, Mikkelsen said, largely due to the new litigation that has been filed and new scientific research on the fishery in the last 10 years.

“I would say that the chapter headings are similar to the KBRA, but the content is different, because we have 10 years of better information and science, but also court orders and injunctions and an upcoming biological opinion (on the effects of Klamath Project operations on threatened and endangered species due out in 2020),” he said.

“But unless neighbors begin start talking to neighbors, we are going to have a difficult time.”