Dan Keppen, a leading advocate for Klamath Basin farmers during their recent high-profile water battles, is stepping down as executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association...

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GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Dan Keppen, a leading advocate for Klamath Basin farmers during their recent high-profile water battles, is stepping down as executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA).

“The nature of the job requires a lot of intensity a lot of the time,” Keppen, 39, said yesterday from his office in Klamath Falls. “To keep this momentum going, we need a fresh horse.”

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The water users will conduct a national search for a replacement and expect to have one in place by the end of next month.

“Under Dan’s stewardship, the KWUA has developed the organizational structure, vision and will to lead Klamath irrigation interests into the future,” said farmer Steve Kandra, president of the organization.

Keppen said he had no definite plans, other than to stay in the Klamath Falls area to help his wife expand her physical-therapy practice and spend more time with their two children, ages 12 and 8.

Wendell Wood, who as an advocate for fish and wildlife for the Oregon Natural Resources Council regularly butted heads with the farmers, said Keppen was an effective spokesman.

“We think agribusiness has done a wonderful job of waving the endangered-species bloody shirt,” Wood said. “But the irrigators basically have never acknowledged, Dan Keppen as well, that the real problem in the basin is there is not enough water to go around. That fundamentally has to be addressed as part of the resolution of water problems in the basin.”

Keppen was a special assistant to the regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento, Calif., in spring 2001 when the agency decided it had to shut off irrigation water to most of the Klamath Reclamation Project, serving about 1,400 farms along the Oregon-California border, to assure enough water during a drought for endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.

After farmers and supporters staged protests around the head gates of the irrigation project, Interior Secretary Gale Norton had irrigation water restored, but many farmers lost crops of grain, potatoes, mint and alfalfa.

The following year, full irrigation was restored to the project, but more than 30,000 adult salmon died in low water conditions returning to the Klamath River to spawn.