OLENE, Ore. — When he’s not leaving fresh cross-country ski tracks outside his home in Olene, just east of Klamath Falls, Dan Keppen’s path as executive director of the Family Farm Alliance takes him all over the country, from conferences in Nevada and Colorado to testifying before Congress in Washington, D.C.
But the path always leads him back home, a place he never intended to stay long-term when moving to Klamath Falls 18 years ago, but one that he relishes with snow-capped views in the winter and fluorescent sunsets in both the winter and summer.
At the Family Farm Alliance, he still advocates for water, but also for agriculture in 17 Western states, while keeping close ties with the local ag community in the Klamath Basin.
“We’re a nonprofit advocacy group and our mission statement is to protect and enhance Western irrigated agriculture,” Keppen said, during an early February interview at his home.
Finger on the pulse
Keppen communicates with congressional staffers on a continual basis, doing research both for Republicans and Democrats on a wide variety of issues related to Western water.
In many ways, his current role mirrors what he used to do as executive director of Klamath Water Users Association, though on a larger scale, and potentially with more life balance this time around.
To say that life has changed for Keppen since leaving the helm at KWUA, both personally and professionally, would be a significant understatement.
Keppen has served as executive director of the alliance for 14 years, but started out by moving to the basin in November 2001, just months after one of the most difficult summers the its recent history.
At the time, he was working for the Bureau of Reclamation and traveled up from northern California to the basin.
Lawsuits vs. common causes
Following his role at Reclamation, Keppen spent 3½ years as executive director of the KWUA.
Keppen said as former KWUA Executive Director Greg Addington took over after he left the organization, preceding former director Scott White, litigations were dropped as parties moved toward a settlement. Without litigations, Keppen said the process was a lot more smooth, which is less reflective of current events.
Every night when Keppen went to bed, he could still feel the weight of the role on his shoulders, he said.
“You feel a bigger responsibility because you’re living in the community,” Keppen said.
When he worked in Sacramento on water issues, the job was somewhat removed from everyday water users.
“Here, you’re in the middle of it,” Keppen said. “You’re in the neighborhood. The job was kind of all-consuming.”
Keppen left his role with water users after the position took its toll.
Keppen believes it’s not even the hydrology that makes farming so unpredictable in the Klamath Basin each year, but he believes regulations take their toll as well.
“When you go home at night, how can you just drop that?” Keppen said. You feel like, the people you’re working for, if things go bad, they could go out of business.”
Keppen sees parallels between when he arrived on the scene in 2001 to the present, which he said can be described as “everybody fighting each other.”
“Last year, we just missed it,” he added, referencing a prominent court case in San Francisco to help the irrigators. “If that court decision had gone the wrong way, things would have been shut down in the middle of Summer. It would have been worse than in 2001.”
Another chance at the table
Keppen is now a member of the Coalition of the Willing, a group of stakeholders currently meeting out of the area to talk about the long-term state of water use in the Basin.
Keppen said he’s worked with KWUA to make sure the coalition is representative of the broader community in the basin.
“The Chamber, the realtors, KCEDA (Klamath County Economic Development Association) — We’re kind of monitoring this stuff together,” Keppen said.
“To me, a settlement of some sort is the only way that’s going to get us out of this mess. What it takes reaching a settlement means working together with folks that maybe you’re not real friendly with.’’
The Klamath Tribes currently have only served as observers at the meetings, though Alan Mikkelsen, senior adviser to the secretary of the interior on water and Western resources, said they are welcome to join discussions if there are no set preconditions.
Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry shared a rebuttal in a guest commentary with the Herald and News, stating the tribes are not currently interested in water settlement discussions.
While uncertainties remain over a settlement, Keppen addressed the efforts by the coalition that could lead to some kind of solution in progress.
“Right now, I think everybody recognizes you’re not going to be crafting another KBRA (Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement),” Keppen added. “You’re going to have to find some low-hanging fruit that we all agree upon, and I think that’s water quality.”
Keppen said his role at Family Farm Alliance as well as water resource management over the last 20 years has put his problem-solving skills to use and he will continue to do so.
“It’s a balance — advocacy — You’ve got to stand up and fight for the people that you’re working for,” Keppen said.
“But if you really want to solve resource problems, they’re so complicated, you’ve got to have as many diverse interests involved as possible.
“You come up with the best solutions when you have different ways of thinking,” Keppen added.