Proposed landfill site adjacent to Klamath Marsh draws sharp rebuke from Klamath Tribes

A public hearing will be held on May 28 at the Klamath County Government Center building for public comments

Landfills are necessary, though no site is ideally suited to host one. However, some locations make for questionable proposals. A landfill being proposed to occupy 806 acres of land south of Lenz Siding Road between Highway 97 and Klamath Marsh raised the ire of the Klamath Tribes leaders. The marsh is one of the largest in the Intermountain West and the spiritual heart of the Klamath People.

Due to its high water table, the Klamath Marsh is vulnerable to landfill leachate, which is alarming the Klamath Tribes and environmentalists.

An application for the landfill was filed by a developer, Don Jensen, from Salem, Ore. The site of the landfill is designated as Exclusive Farm Use (EFU). This EFU falls under Article 54 of the Klamath County Land Development Code and states: “The purpose of the Exclusive Farm Use Zone is to protect and maintain agricultural lands for farm use, consistent with existing and future needs for agricultural products. The EFU zone is also intended to allow other uses compatible with agricultural activities, protect forests, scenic resources, and fish and wildlife habitat, and maintain and improve the quality of air, water, and land resources of the county.”

The second sentence is incompatible with developing a landfill. When pressed on the counterintuitive nature of this proposal, Klamath County Planning Director Erik Nobel conceded that while a landfill is not necessarily compatible with maintaining and improving the air quality, water, and land resources in its immediate vicinity, there are conditional use permits in Article 54 that would satisfy establishing a landfill.

“But we also have in there that we allow it through a conditional use permit,” said Nobel during an interview with the Klamath Tribes News. “So that’s where we’re saying, ‘Okay, conditionally, we think we can allow this. What kinds of conditions can we get so it’s not affecting the air; it’s not affecting the wildlife; it’s not affecting the land use around it.’”

A public hearing will be held at the Klamath County Government Center building on May 28. After public testimonies are taken from both sides, both for and opposed to the landfill, the proposal will then be presented and heard by the Klamath County Planning Commission for consideration. The decision will be final if no one appeals it.

Should the proposal pass with no appeals, conditions discussed and accepted at the public hearing would be implemented. “We certainly could talk about that at the hearing and say, ‘Here’s a condition we want – no higher than the lodgepole trees out there.’ Okay, so you’re capped at like 50 feet,” said Nobel, citing a hypothetical condition regarding the capped height of the landfill.

An aerial view of a proposed landfill adjacent to Klamath Marsh.

As of this writing, there is no clear information indicating where the trash would come from. In a letter to the Klamath County Planning Department, Klamath Tribes Chairman Clayton Dumont expressed dismay and skepticism regarding the proposal. “No one in their right mind could seriously contemplate welcoming thousands of tons of trash from (based on our understanding of the word ‘regional’ as it is routinely used by this industry) multiple states into a place so deeply loved by so many,” Dumont stated in the letter.

Dumont cited extensive research documenting Klamath Marsh’s decline by the Klamath Tribes in partnership with the United States Geological Survey in the letter. A landfill in close proximity to Klamath Marsh would have detrimental effects on the marsh’s unique ecology, further accelerating damage to its integrity.

Klamath Tribes’ Environmental Coordinator, Alta Harris, facilitates communications and cooperation between the Tribes’ Natural Resources, Culture and Heritage, and Ambodat Departments and their interactions with outside agencies.

“When it comes to groundwater, you’re losing water from the stream into the groundwater,” said Harris, describing the functions of a healthy marsh. “So, you’re collecting all of that water coming in from the system – the forest, the neighboring mountains – all of those things are collecting in the marsh. It’s recharging the groundwater, it’s being filtered, sediment is being deposited, and then it’s carrying on out.”

Ideally, large marshes should collect sediment from the ecosystem. Water runoff from forests and mountains picks up sediment in the form of organic material and soil. The runoff deposits and traps sediment in the marsh, filtering the water through the wetland systems before, in this case, joining the Williamson River in the Klamath Marsh.

“When you don’t have those marshes functioning the way they are with the amount of water that they historically had,” explained Harris, “not only are you no longer collecting that sediment, you’re actually contributing sediment to the system – into Upper Klamath Lake and beyond. So, because that soil is no longer wet and trapped, it can also be moved out. When you divert the water and make it run through more quickly than it has historically, then you’re actually picking up years of trapped sediment and adding it to the system. So those factors could be contributing to water quality problems.”

Research suggests this is the scenario as man-made irrigation ditches have diverted water from its historical path north of Upper Klamath Lake. Potential leaching from a landfill, especially at the proposed location, would exacerbate this situation, further contaminating the groundwater and river water that feeds into Upper Klamath Lake. If the bottom of the landfill is below the water table, then contamination in the form of leachate – heavy metals, pesticides, and carcinogens seeping through the earth and into natural water reservoirs – becomes highly probabilistic.

Recognizing a potential cascade of problems downstream, Dumont wrote in his letter to the County Planning Department: “Imagine adding an array of poisons to the already tenuous aquatic lifelines of countless plants, animals, and human beings! I urge you to take a close look at the enclosed map depicting the flow of groundwater from north to south below the proposed landfill site moving directly toward major rivers and ultimately Ews (Upper Klamath Lake) and the Klamath River.”

A map depicting the flow of groundwater from north to south below the proposed landfill site. (Map courtesy of Oleksandr Chebanov)

Ambodat Department Director Mark Buettner pointed out the important role the Williamson River, flowing through the marsh, plays with regard to the unique wildlife of the region; unique species include redband trout, Klamath largescale sucker, Miller Lake lamprey, tui chubs, and sculpins. The riparian and marsh habitats support the threatened Oregon Spotted frog, rare Yellow Rail, and a large number of water bird species.

“Many of these species would be harmed by landfill leachate, which will contaminate the subsurface groundwater that is hydrologically connected with the Williamson River and Klamath Marsh,” said Buettner. “Approval of this project would be a major blow to the Tribes’ efforts to restore the Upper Williamson River and Klamath Marsh ecosystems.”

The Klamath Tribes recently secured $2 million to begin restoring the entire marsh system and expect to secure another $3 million by spring 2025. According to Dumont, if Conditional Use Permit 01-24 is approved, decades of effort already expended and decades of work planned for the future are at risk of unraveling.

“These marshes are very important for charging the entire system,” said Harris, emphasizing the important ecological role Klamath Marsh serves Upper Klamath Lake and Klamath River. “So, you have the possibility to get effects outside of the project area.”

Ecological concerns are not limited to water and fish. Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge is host to an array of birds, serving as a major stopover for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway. The danger for birds – yellow rail, sandhill crane, waterfowl, raptors, and shorebirds, to name a few – lies not only in a disruption of migratory patterns but also in digesting garbage from a landfill in close proximity to the marsh. The neighboring pine forests also include Rocky Mountain elk and the great gray owl as permanent residents.

Klamath Marsh has been home to the Klamath Indians for generations. The first 16,400 acres of the Refuge were purchased from the Tribes in 1958 with Federal Duck Stamp funds. (Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Northwestern University)

Tule and Lower Klamath Lakes – two other nearby refuges for birds and comprising parts of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, like Klamath Marsh – have experienced water shortages so severe that officials have either limited or completely closed waterfowl hunting the past three seasons. If the proposed landfill adjacent to Klamath Marsh is built, migratory birds would likely be further deprived of viable feeding and nesting grounds in the Klamath Basin.

Klamath Tribes’ first foods have also been on the decline. “The marsh at one point was covered in wocus and a place our peoples could go any time of year to harvest foods,” said Ambodat Environmental Scientist Trainee Shahnie Rich. “Today, the wocus on the marsh is minimal and not always good quality dependent on conditions any given year.”

The applicant and developer, Jensen, previously planned to buy thousands of acres in Christmas Valley, Lake County, to establish a landfill. That formerly proposed location is approximately 80 miles east of Jensen’s current bid next to Klamath Marsh.

As of this writing, Jensen said he was unavailable for comment but would speak with Klamath Tribes News at a later date.

Prior to his Lake County application, Jensen had little experience in the landfill business, save for a stint with Simco Road Regional Landfill in Elmore County, Idaho. The privately owned landfill he was once affiliated with, for which he served on the board, is facing a lawsuit from the county. Elmore County alleges Idaho Regional Waste Services, owner of Simco Road Regional Landfill, was noncompliant after it continued operations despite the revocation of its conditional use permit for environmental violations.

According to BoiseDev reporting, IRWS first filed suit against the county, arguing that “the county illegally revoked the landfill’s conditional use permit to operate after a ‘long-running, targeted and illegal campaign’ against the IRWS and its operations of the landfill.”

According to an Oregon Public Broadcasting article, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality fined the landfill $20,000 for multiple violations in 2019. These violations included the landfill itself catching fire multiple times and burying tires at the site – an act banned in landfills in Oregon – in years prior. One report from 2018 noted: “It appeared free liquids were being poured into a dump truck bed, which then released the liquids to the landfill.”

Klamath County Planning Director Erik Nobel said he was not familiar with the violations in Idaho and had not conducted research on Mr. Jensen at the time of this writing.

Should the proposal pass, the Klamath Tribes plan to appeal. “The Klamath Tribes have a deep and well-documented connection to ?ewksi, the Klamath Marsh area,” stated Dumont. “As the site of our largest precontact village, it sustained us from time immemorial until its relatively recent, human-caused ill-health. It is a sacred place.”

This article was updated to reflect a change in date of the public hearing, which was originally scheduled for April 23, but was pushed back to May 28.