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Bankruptcies, suicides, death threats: A battle over water rights was destroying an Oregon community until a Rotarian found a way to bring it together.

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The water, steel gray, muscled with hidden current, surges by in a steady itinerant push, making a sound like bacon lightly frying, or faint applause. Blue-black against the afternoon sky, the snowy peaks of the Cascades overlook the river’s basin. To stand on the cool, muddy banks, it’s hard to imagine the tears of heartache, bitterness, hostility, and despair that have been shed over this vital artery of the American West.  

The 263-mile Klamath River, which stretches from Oregon to a remote corner of California, has been the object of a custody battle as ugly as any parental fight for a child. Indian tribes. Farmers. Ranchers. Fishermen. Neighbors. Environmental activists. Politicians. All have been locked in a stalemate so fraught that it has an unofficial title: the Klamath Water Wars. 

Melita’s Restaurant & Lounge just outside Chiloquin, Ore., isn’t much to look at. With its corrugated metal roof, hand-painted “open” sign, and faded Pepsi ad circa 1970, it’s little more than a roadside pit stop. But it’s got good pie and barbecue chicken and serves a generous helping of mashed potatoes; more to the point, it’s about the only game in Chiloquin, a timber town just down the road from the sprawling ranch that belongs to a mild-mannered Rotarian named Jim Root. 

Jim Root recalling a Rotary Convention session that inspired him to get warring factions of his community talking.

In his jeans, leather vest over a light blue chambray shirt, cowboy boots, and professorial wire-framed glasses, Root, 69, doesn’t much look the part of miracle worker – more like a kindly uncle who always knows the right thing to say. 

And yet I traveled cross-country to this remote corner of Oregon to meet Root precisely because of the improbable feat he pulled off at the turbulent height of the water wars here. In the most tense of moments, the self-effacing businessman got a group of enemies to start talking.  

What emerged was the framework for a comprehensive water-sharing agreement reached by some 42 competing groups that previously couldn’t agree on the color of the sky.

The Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act made it all the way to the U.S. Senate, carrying the blessing of everyone from the editorial pages of the New York Times, which declared an “End to the Klamath War,” to the Obama administration. Then, at the eleventh hour, a single Oregon lawmaker doomed it by adding a “poison pill” provision. To the people Root brought together, and to those who took those meetings and built them into a nearly miraculous coalition, it was a crushing blow.

Still, in the months that followed – as the sides limped  back to the drawing board – something extraordinary emerged from the ashes of dashed hopes, something Root and other key players believe will ultimately fulfill the promise of their hard work, something nearly as precious as the water over which they’ve fought for so long: a healing of the wounds, racial, cultural, and political, that have scarred and bloodied this region for generations. 

This healing might not have occurred had it not been for Root and the life-changing lessons he learned in his first days as a Rotarian.

In 1984, Root, owner of a multinational fruit business, attended his first Rotary International Convention. Held that year in Birmingham, England, the annual gathering drew Root’s attention because of one of the highly anticipated sessions, which promised a discussion between British and Argentine Rotarians over how to end the stalemated conflict in the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina. As someone who did business in Argentina and knew how far apart the two countries were regarding the territory, Root entertained few illusions that much would come out of the meeting.

As the session unfolded, however, he was intrigued by how it was moderated. “An Englishman chaired the meeting,” Root recalls, relating the story between bites at Melita’s. But instead of allowing the kind of posturing that had exacerbated the problem in the past, the moderator simply listened, gently guiding the discussion by considering the competing arguments with respect. “I heard heartbreaking stories on both sides,” Root says. “And then I watched those Rotarians accomplish what their government and their politicians couldn’t.” The framework for an agreement was struck. “Can I say the (Falklands) war stopped at the convention?” he says. “No. But it came to a conclusion shortly thereafter.”

For Root, the moment was transformative. “It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen,” he says. “These Rotarians were motivated to return to their countries and convince their governments that peace was what was needed. They did. And it worked. And I never forgot it.”

Former tribal Chairman Allen Foreman represented the Klamath tribes at the Shilo-Root meetings.

Seventeen years after that convention, in 2001, the Klamath Valley Basin lay gasping, scorched by one of the most punishing droughts on record. Complicating matters were higher temperatures that left precious little snowpack in the nearby mountains – the de facto reservoir for farmers in dry years.

Such droughts were uncommon, though not unheard of. But, how to divvy up the region’s most precious resource – water – had been a sore spot for as long as there had been settlers in this verdant landscape. The volatility between parties was understandable.

Brimming with salmon and suckerfish, and rich in irrigation possibilities for farmers coaxed west by a federal government eager to tame the resource-laden region, the river, and surrounding lakes that fed it, was viewed by some as lifeblood and by others as a winning lottery ticket. For Indians, the basin represented even more – it was an ancient, sacred, spiritual inheritance. 

The catch was as clear as the pristine currents: There wasn’t enough water to go around, especially in drought years. Waves of development multiplied the consequences. Feeder lakes were drained to provide arable land for farmers. Four power-generating dams that lit the region with electricity before becoming obsolete blocked salmon from reaching spawning grounds.

In 1954 the federal government, as part of its efforts to assimilate Indians, duped the Klamath tribes into selling their reservations, leaving them without a home. “It was a disastrous time for the Klamath tribes,” says Allen Foreman, former tribal chairman. 

The 1864 treaty that had created the reservations, however, included one important provision: It allowed the tribes to hunt, fish, and gather on their former lands. To do that, federal courts later ruled, the Klamath tribes retained “senior water rights” – control – over water flows. 

That, in turn, affected the “irrigators” – the farmers – who now found themselves second in line for crucial water supplies. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 gave another powerful player a voice in who got how much. Still, despite occasional fierce clashes, most notably a decision to dramatically curtail logging to protect the endangered spotted owl, a fragile détente seemed to hold.

In response to the 2001 drought, however, the federal government declared that it was shutting off water to farmers to save an endangered suckerfish in Klamath Lake. The move devastated farmers. Hundreds of small farms fell into bankruptcy. There were divorces, even suicides. 

The farmers lashed out at the government with a series of escalating protests. Visiting officials from Washington, D.C., wore bulletproof vests. In what became a symbol of their rage, hundreds of farmers formed a bucket brigade, passing buckets, hand-to-hand, from the river to an irrigation reservoir, chanting protest slogans into news cameras.

They then turned their wrath on the Indians, tossing a match onto the tinder of long-smoldering race relations. In one instance, for example, “You had a pickup full of young men driving through Chiloquin shouting obscenities at Indians,” says Steve Kandra, a Rotarian and a third-generation farmer from Merrill, Ore., who, at the time, was a critic of the tribes. “They were making threats. Making derogatory comments, painting symbols, stuff like, ‘We won the war, we took the West.’ There was a lot of bad behavior.”

“It was a volatile situation,” agrees Foreman. “There were instances where tribal members wouldn’t be served in restaurants. There was an instance when some young farmers came to Chiloquin and confronted a school bus in town and made all of the kids on the bus get off. They sorted them by tribal and nontribal. Drunk and using obscenities, they put bullet holes through signs and businesses.” As for retaliation against the farmers, “we had to do our best to refrain,” Foreman says. “There could have been some serious bloodshed.” 

After another severe drought in 2002, the Bush administration authorized the release of water from the lakes. By then, however, the water had grown warm and stagnant and was full of toxic bacteria. Salmon, which require cool, fresh water to survive, perished by the tens of thousands, washing up along the banks of the Klamath. Rep. Mike Thompson scooped up a truckload of the dead fish and drove them to Washington, D.C., where they were dumped on the front steps of the Department of the Interior.

The John C. Boyle Dam is slated to be removed.

Watching with growing anguish, Root, a member of the Rotary Club of Medford (Rogue), decided to act. Having prospered in his Medford-based fruit export business, he and his wife had bought a ranch near Chiloquin in 1992. Unaware at the time that the region would become ground zero for the water wars, he nonetheless knew the importance of water rights. The main attraction of the property, in fact – other than a lovely creek running through it – was “that it had one of the oldest water rights available,” Root says.

Because of that, “I was pretty much immune to the tragedy of the water shut-off,” he says. He wasn’t immune, however, to the pain around him. Nor was he blind to the fact that he had more water than he needed. “I felt like I was a party (to the problems) because I was spreading all of this irrigation water on pasture land, which is a pretty low economic return from a water point of view,” he says. After some soul-searching, he says, he and his family “decided to discontinue irrigating.”

The gesture did not go unnoticed by the nearby Klamath tribes and the regional farmers. That Root was also restoring a creek on his ranch, a sacred waterway to the Klamath Indians, engendered still more trust and respect, and not just with the tribe. Root’s neighbor, a rancher named Kurt Thomas, approached him. “We started becoming friends,” says Root. “Together we recognized how big a problem the water shut-off was and began to think maybe we could help.” 

It was an audacious notion. “Everybody was suspicious of everybody else at the time,” Root admits. “It was just a terrible environment to pull any kind of critical thinking together.” But with Thomas friendly with key players among the farming and ranching community – and Root having earned the respect of the tribes – the two men believed they could at least get people in a room to talk.

Root sent invitations to a breakfast at the Klamath Falls Shilo Inn. To his surprise, the warring factions accepted. “I wanted to have a safe space, a place where people could speak their mind and not edit themselves,” he says. “And if somebody got out of bounds, people could be forgiven.” He kept the meetings off the media grid. He knew that once cameras and notebooks were out, the tone would change. That “would put us right back into the culture that had been so destructive.” 

“Allow people to heal, and they’ll heal the river," says Jason Atkinson, documentary filmmaker.

Equally important would be how he ran the meeting. He was there to moderate, not take sides. All parties needed to feel they were being heard – and respected. He knew the template: the Rotarian mediation he had witnessed in England. He also knew the importance of sharing a meal. “Part of it was food, part of it was coffee, and part of it was this old-fashioned thing called relationships,” says Jason Atkinson, a former Oregon state senator who quit to put together a documentary on the Klamath. “Because if you care about somebody, you can’t roll them.”

The first moments provided an opportunity. When the tribal representatives arrived, they suggested a technique they used in their council meetings: move the tables into a circle rather than having them all face forward. That way, all were equal and they could look into one another’s eyes. “It was a great idea,” says Root. “And our first breakthrough.”

Emulating the Rotarian mediation of the Falklands conflict, Root wrote four bullet points on a whiteboard to set the tone and frame the discussion:

1. Develop trust.
2. Actions consider the entire community.
3. Balance flow of water in and out of the community. 
4. Improve water quality considering “good ecology equals good economy.”

“I would try to pull facts out from people and we would get facts down on the board,” he says.

The initial goal was modest: to meet at 8 in the morning and be done by noon. “But we got to lunchtime and there was just energy in the room,” Root recalls. “You could sense that there was the beginning of understanding of each other’s issues. And maybe a little trust. … So I put in a quick call to the kitchen to bring some soup and salad and sandwiches up, and we ended up going for a full eight hours.”

The meetings became a weekly event, always following the same format. When the tone grew heated, as it occasionally did, “we would take timeouts,” Root says. “That would leave the rest of the group in informal conversation, and rather than sit at the table, people would get up, stretch, cool off. 

“If somebody vented, they vented. I just made up my mind that that wasn’t going to become part of the dialogue.”

Rancher Becky Hyde simply asked tribal  Chairman Allen Foreman, “What would it mean if somebody just said they were sorry?”

Along the way, something extraordinary happened. People became friends. “To me, the meetings were a relief,” says Becky Hyde, a rancher from Beatty, Ore. “I felt that we were in the rooms really intending to resolve problems instead of fighting in the press.” Hyde sometimes brought her infant son, lending a family atmosphere and occasional comic relief. 

As the weeks passed, the group grew closer. Tribal members cooked salmon for farmers at a potato festival. Farmers attended an Indian fish festival. In short, “they started to care about each other,” Atkinson says. “They started to respect each other, and that’s where the power was.”

Kandra, a member of the Rotary Club of Tulelake, Calif., and one of the most vocal and aggressive opponents of the tribes, could sense his own transformation. “I’m a Rotarian and an elder at a church, and I’m sitting in the pew being told to love your neighbor, treat people civilly,” he says. “And outside of church people are saying, ‘Steve, you’re a symbol of conflict.’ I had to look in the mirror and say, ‘I don’t want to be a symbol of conflict. I want to be a peacemaker.’ So I had to change how I do things.”

Then came the true breakthrough. Hyde stunned the group with a single question that shattered whatever remained of the walls still blocking people’s hearts. 

“What would it mean,” she asked then-Klamath tribal Chairman Foreman, “if somebody just said they were sorry?” 

When I visit Foreman in his offices at a casino near Chiloquin and ask whether he recalls the moment, his eyes begin to well. Yes, he remembers. “I said, ‘That would be worth a million dollars. ’”

The meetings collapsed when word leaked to the media. “We were outed,” says Root. Protesters appeared. Accusations flew. “It created some pretty big sparks in the community,” recalls Hyde. “There was a backlash. It’s ugly sometimes when you stand up.” The sudden spotlight, Root and others knew, spelled doom for the effort. 

But the Shilo-Root meetings, as they came to be known, were far from futile. “Those meetings were a catalyst,” says Hyde, that led to a “broader and broader base of people trying to do the right thing.”

At the center of it all, adds Atkinson, was Root – “a guy who only wanted to put people in a room, to put people together. Period. And he did it just out of the goodness of his heart.”

It’s ugly sometimes when you stand up.

A decade later, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, a complex accord bringing together more than 40 groups, was before Congress. Separate agreements, including one promising the removal of the four dams on the Klamath, were also struck. 

Despite the support of the Obama administration and much of Congress, the initiative failed after Rep. Greg Walden added untenable provisions.

A post by Atkinson to his Facebook page shortly afterward captured the heartbreak of many: “Our people have been used and emotionally abused for years. When they had every reason to get even, they taught me to be gracious. When the rightness of their actions was drowned in the anger of the small-minded, they were humble. I didn’t understand pure in heart and broken in spirit until I saw it lived out. … Government failed us, but I tell you to hold your head high and be proud of what we did.”

Root remains optimistic. The dams are still scheduled to come down in 2020 thanks to a maneuver that takes the decision out of the hands of Congress. And the groups are meeting again, something that almost certainly wouldn’t be the case if the Shilo gatherings hadn’t stanched the bad blood. 

The hopes for a comprehensive agreement, says Root, “may be gasping, but they’re still alive. There is cause for hope.”

• Bryan Smith is a senior writer at Chicago magazine and a contributing editor at Men’s Health.

A sign reflects opposition by farmers and ranchers to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.