Capital Press - Photo gallery gives voice to Klamath Basin farmers during water crisis

February 9, 2023
Capital Press - Photo gallery gives voice to Klamath Basin farmers during water crisis

KLAMATH FALLS — Hannah Whitley came to the Klamath Basin in September 2021, immersing herself in the region’s complex and seemingly intractable water crisis.

A doctoral candidate in rural sociology at Pennsylvania State University, Whitley wanted to spend one full year embedded in the community leading up to the Bureau of Reclamation’s annual water allocation for farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Project.

Tensions were high following the previous irrigation season, when water was shut off to the project entirely due to drought and federal mandates for endangered fish.

Over the next 15 months, Whitley attended 140 public meetings and spoke with producers about their struggles. She plans to write her dissertation examining how water is managed across the basin, who is calling the shots and who ultimately benefits.

Along the way, Whitley was encouraged to lead another effort compiling photos from local farmers and their families to tell their story visually.

Known as a “PhotoVoice” project, the images capture scenes of life in the basin through the eyes of those working on the land.

In one example, fields of green horseradish and golden wheat bask in the sunlight. Another shows a flock of birds soaring over an irrigation pivot as several cows graze in the distance.

But not every photo is of bucolic scenery. One in particular shows a dry, dusty field choked with weeds, apparently abandoned without enough water to grow a crop. It is accompanied by an ominous caption: “Empty grocery shelves before they became empty.”

Whitley is a native Oregonian who grew up on her family’s small beef ranch in Douglas County. She said the goal of a PhotoVoice gallery is to spark conversation and deepen understanding of the issues facing a group of people. It can also be used as a tool to influence policymakers.

“You’re creating empowerment in a community,” Whitley explained. “What’s really unique about PhotoVoice is that participants can interpret it however they want.”Four families agreed to participate in the project, mostly on the Oregon side of the basin — Leah Saltzman, Chelsea Shearer, Kailyn and Trenton Robnett and Aaron Vaughn. Together, they agreed upon the title, “Nevertheless, We Persist.”

The exhibit was funded by a graduate student competitive research grant from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Science, and a pre-doctoral fellowship through the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture.Whitley said she didn’t tell any of the farmers what to photograph. Their only prompt was to capture their experiences working with agriculture in the basin.

The situation for agricultural producers is tenuous for several reasons, Whitley said. They are often fourth-, fifth- or even sixth-generation farmers, and they personally feel extraordinary pressure to sustain their family’s livelihood and legacy.

“That sense of personhood is not often discussed in terms of Klamath issues,” Whitley said.

While the gallery can be accessed online, Whitley is also bringing the exhibit to events and trade shows across the country this year. It will be at the Central Oregon Ag Show March 24-25 in Redmond.

Other upcoming dates include the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif., Feb. 14-16 and the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Conference in Boston from May 31 to June 3.

Whitley said she believes there can be a resolution to the water conflict. She pointed to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, in which more than 40 government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and private companies signed in 2015 but was never implemented due to congressional inaction.

The Klamath Basin Hydroelectric Agreement was another landmark accomplishment, in which groups agreed to remove four dams on the Klamath River to improve fish passage. Deconstruction of the first dam is expected to begin later this year.

“This community can come together,” Whitley said. “They’ve done it before.”

-George Plaven

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