The weather in the Klamath Basin may be seasonably pleasant, but the climate of long-term water agreement talks for Interior Department’s Alan Mikkelsen have been stormy as of late.

Mikkelsen, a senior advisor to Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke on water and western resources, has often said his task of helping stakeholders find a solution is akin to the highest mountaineering feat of all: climbing Mount Everest.

Basically, it’s pretty hard, even for someone with an extensive background in conflict resolution like Mikkelsen.

In a recent interview with Mikkelsen regarding the status of his “climb” toward the goal of an agreement, he said he is halfway up the mountain. On Wednesday, he said progress has come to a stop.

Barriers to progress

Mikkelsen said there are two “storms” hovering over the issue of finding a long-term agreement to the Basin’s ongoing water conflicts: One is litigation, and Two, is parties not wanting to engage, he said.

“Those storms are stopping any further progress at this point,” Mikkelsen said.

Mikkelsen said moving forward toward a long-term agreement depends on the parties involved.

He has been visiting the area at least once a month to facilitate talks with Basin stakeholders since 2017, and plans to return to the Basin sometime in November, at which time he plans to continue talks with area stakeholders.

Mikkelsen said he plans to utilize his November trip to evaluate his plans moving forward, as well, which could mean pulling his negotiation efforts with the Klamath Tribes and the on- and off-Klamath Reclamation Project irrigators from the Basin altogether.

Mikkelsen had planned to visit the Basin this week but canceled his trip.

Time to talk

“Schedulng-wise and process-wise, I decided with a short visit and the need for what we perceive to be parties in the Basin having to really have some internal discussions, we went ahead and canceled this month’s visit,” Mikkelsen said. “Next month simply isn’t possible because of my schedule and so we’ll be back in November sometime.”

On his planned return trip to the Basin, Mikkelsen said he will see if there’s any “appetite” in the Basin for discussions that could lead to a long-term agreement or a process that could lead to that.

“Given the fact that we’ve spent probably 40 to 50 days in the Basin, that we’ve been from the headwaters of the Basin to the ocean several times and we’ve met with all of the parties from Tribes to ranchers to farmers to fishermen to environmental organizations, and with state authorities, in all of that, frankly, we’re not seeing the needle move very much,” Mikkelsen said. “We’re going to have to evaluate when we come back in November whether it’s worth continuing the effort.

“We would hope that parties in the Basin would want to engage in a discussion about the future of the Basin,” he added. “There’s some parties that have really not wanted to engage in a discussion about the future of the Basin. There are other parties that frankly have an unrealistic view of the future of the Basin.”

Mikkelsen declined to comment on who he was speaking of in terms of parties.

Right to litigate

The federal adviser emphasized all parties have the right to litigate, but he hinted that it’s not helping them get closer to solving root issues.

“This is America,” Mikkelsen said.

“Everybody in the Basin has, you know, the right to sue anybody they want to.”

“I’ve never been a fan of litigation over negotiation and consensus when it comes to resource management,” he added. “I don’t believe that most judges in the world, whether they’re state judges or federal judges, really are resource managers … I frankly think that the more people are willing to engage in collaboration, negotiation, cooperation, whatever you want to call it.”

Mikkelsen has told the H&N in a previous interview that if litigation continues to move forward on multiple fronts, that he would consider backing out of negotiations in the Basin.

A proposal for a long-term agreement that Mikkelsen unveiled in April has not been modified to date with components desired by parties for a long-term agreement.

“We put that out with the hope that the parties in the Basin would respond with a document that would lead to discussions about the future of the Basin,” Mikkelsen said.

Now, he said, “Everybody is going their separate ways.”

“We’re starting to focus more on the process (of) how to promote discussion … than any sort of grand plan of some sort of a Basinwide agreement.”

Facilitating talks

There are options, despite limitations associated with litigation, Mikkelsen said, including “stays” in lawsuits or “confidentiality agreements” so parties can talk. He said he’d be willing to facilitate such meetings if there is interest from parties.

He said the when tasked with negotiation in the Basin, he was given no restrictions nor a timeline when a long-term agreement needed to be reached. But he also said he needs to be realistic about the effort.

“If the parties don’t want to talk about the future, we will go to places where the parties do want to talk about the future,” Mikkelsen said.