Farm Country Gone Dry
Klamath Basin farmers and their small communities
are reeling at the cutoff of federal irrigation water
in favor of endangered fish
by Hal Bernton
The Seattle Times, July 1, 2001, Sunday Fourth Edition
TULELAKE, Calif.--Instead of potatoes and mint, many of the fields here
sprout weeds and pointed signs:
"No Water. No Farms. No Food."
"Federally Created Disaster Area."
In the Klamath Basin along Oregon's border with California, the feds have
done what once was unthinkable: In a drought-year effort to protect endangered
and threatened fish, the Bureau of Reclamation shut off 80 percent of the
irrigation water that flows to some 1,200 farms.
The cutoff has hit with sledgehammer force in small farm communities sagging
from years of low crop prices, and residents feel betrayed.
"Klamath Basin people are the backbone of America, and their backs are broken
by their own government," said Robert Gasser, owner of a fertilizer company in
Merrill, Ore., at a congressional hearing last month.
The cutoff is one of the most severe fish-conservation actions ever taken
against Pacific Northwest farmers.
The Klamath Basin once was a showcase for the gritty homesteading of drained,
But competition for water has turned into a clash of values, and the Klamath
has become a stewpot for the resource conflicts flaring across the West. Indian
tribes assert treaty rights to water and healthy wildlife populations.
Downstream commercial fishermen press for restoration of salmon runs.
Conservationists want to convert more farmland back to marshes to help heal what
they view as "the Everglades of the West."
Tensions run so high that some farmers have received anonymous threats for
daring to suggest a compromise with environmentalists. Tribe members say they
are treated coolly by some merchants in farm towns.
"We have told our people to hold their heads high, and not get dragged into
anything," said tribal chairman Allen Foreman. "And I'm real proud of how
This summer's crisis is partly a testament to the severity of the drought's
grip on the basin, where the winter snowpack measured just 21 percent of
normal--the biggest deficit anywhere in the Pacific Northwest.
But it also results from biological opinions, released earlier this year by
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service,
that require more water for two species of endangered sucker fish and a
threatened river run of coho salmon. These requirements are expected to trigger
federal irrigation shortfalls as much as seven out of every 10 years, according
to some estimates.
Cutbacks of this frequency and magnitude are unlikely at other Northwest
reclamation projects, where strains between fish and irrigation flows have been
deemed less severe.
But federal court rulings have made it clear: In the battle for scarce water,
protected wildlife trump Bureau of Reclamation irrigation.
The turmoil in the Klamath is being tracked throughout the Northwest. In
Washington's Yakima Basin, bureau officials soon will be expected to provide
more water for listed populations of bullhead trout and steelhead.
"When a federal biological opinion says I have to do something, that's what I
have to do," said David Murillo, Yakima Field Office manager for a federal
project that delivers water to nearly 500,000 acres of Washington farms.
Losses predicted at $150 million
The Klamath cutoff was announced April 6--a day farmers now call "Black
Friday." Since then, farmers have scrambled to plant cover crops to keep parched
soils from blowing away. Some have dug new wells into the aquifer. A few flouted
the federal order by sticking pumps into a channel funneling water to protected
But there will be no replacement water for most crops. Losses to irrigators
and the businesses that depend on them could top $150 million across three
counties. Without federal aid, the winter could bring a slew of bankruptcies.
Environmentalists and tribe officials say it's a time of reckoning in a basin
degraded by decades of logging, cattle grazing and draining of marshlands,
ranches and farms. They say there just isn't enough water to serve competing
demands of fish, farmers and federal wildlife refuges.
That assessment of scarcity is shared by the Bush Administration official now
assigned to help watchdog the Klamath.
"I think that any solution in the Klamath has to recognize that there is not
enough water," said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, deputy chief of staff to Interior
Secretary Gail Norton.
The Klamath Bureau of Reclamation project, launched in 1905, taps into
shallow lakes. The largest, the nutrient-rich Upper Klamath, is 35 miles long
but averages only 7 feet deep. It still holds trophy trout but once sustained a
much greater diversity of aquatic life, including large populations of three
species of bony but edible sucker fish. These were harvested first by Klamath
Indians and other tribes, then by early settlers.
The lake drained into the Klamath River, which historically boasted the
region's third-largest runs of coho.
The project diverted lake water through a network of 185 miles of irrigation
canals to more than 200,000 acres of farmland largely reclaimed from marshes.
Most of the runoff from irrigated fields ends up in the Lower Klamath Federal
Wildlife Refuge. More than a million migrating birds use it as a stopover along
the Pacific Flyway. And it is the biggest wintering ground for bald eagles in
the lower 48 states.
Without farm runoff, the refuge is stressed. Refuge officials often water
22,000 acres of marshlands during the critical fall migration. This year, they
expect to provide for only about 2,000 acres.
Already, much of the refuge is dry, filled with grasses and cracked mud
bottoms. Mallards, orange-beaked, black-winged pelicans and other birds
congregate in what shrunken wetlands remain. Even those lack fresh inflows, so
they are more stagnant than in years past, and thick with algae.
With more birds crowding into smaller spaces, wildlife officials say the risk
of diseases, such as botulism and avian cholera, increases.
"We're doing everything we can to conserve our water, but we're going to end
up mostly dry," said Phil Norton, manager of the Lower Klamath and three other
basin wildlife refuges. "It's a pretty miserable situation."
Environmentalists have filed a notice of intent to sue in an attempt to force
the Bureau of Reclamation to crank down still further on irrigation and send
some water to the refuge.
Klamath farmers are united in their opposition to the federal water cutoffs.
But the burden of those cuts has not been equally shared.
Rationing has largely targeted farmers tied into federal irrigation projects.
That's because the Endangered Species Act is most powerful in curbing flows
through federally controlled systems.
But roughly half the basin's irrigated acreage lies outside Bureau of
Reclamation reach. Some farms and ranches use large amounts of water to produce
pasture crops for cattle that graze in the higher elevations north of Upper
Klamath Lake. Since these farms rely on private water systems, they have yet to
face widespread rationing.
Among the farmers tied to the federal project, the debate about how to
respond to water cutoffs can be bitter.
Many blame the federal Endangered Species Act and want to launch a national
crusade to amend it in two key ways. The act should require more review of
federal scientists who issue biological opinions, they say, and should allow
more flexibility to balance the needs of listed species, other wildlife and
They have staunch allies among western Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Doc
"We need to amend the Endangered Species Act. That's the message we need to
get out here today," Hastings said at the congressional hearing in Klamath
But others think amending the act may be impossible in a divided Congress.
They are tired of low crop prices and weary from years of clashes over water.
"We've gotten to the point that we say enough of the fighting," said John
Anderson, 49, who raises cattle, grain and mint east of Tule Lake. "Let's see if
we can find some common ground, something that will work for everyone."
In recent months, Anderson has met with Andy Kerr, an environmental veteran
of the spotted-owl wars who has taken up the cause of the Klamath. The two have
helped forge a proposal for a federally funded plan that would allow farmers to
voluntarily sell land and irrigation rights.
Environmentalists also want to buy out 22,000 acres of federal leases that
allow farming inside the refuges.
"This joint proposal is ecologically rational--socially just and politically
pragmatic," Kerr testified at the Klamath Falls hearing. "The conservation
community will use all of its power of persuasion and political influence to see
it enacted into law."
For his efforts, Anderson has been branded a traitor by some farmers, and
says he has received anonymous phone threats. Anderson was not invited to
testify at the House hearing. And an ally supporting the plan, Keith Buckingham,
was asked to resign as president of the Tule Lake Growers Association.
Buckingham left his native Tulelake to build houses at Lake Tahoe, but
eventually returned to the family farm. He's convinced change is coming, and is
philosophical about his ouster.
"It seems like I brought up something that was deemed so evil it doesn't even
merit consideration," he said.
The new president of the growers association is Marty Macy, another native of
Tulelake who left for a career in the Marine Corps and then returned.
Macy said a federal buyout would weaken the farm communities. And he was
angered by Buckingham's public remarks that many older basin landowners would be
willing to sell.
"You can not make blatantly disrespectful statements like that," Macy said.
In the three months since Black Friday, dust storms have piled parched soil
into dry irrigation ditches. Some fields remain bare or covered with straw
stubble or weeds.
But barley and other cover crops are greening some land. And farmers are
drilling new wells to try to keep a portion of these grain crops--and a
smattering of high-value potato and mint fields--alive for a modest harvest.
Last week, for the first time in months, the skies clouded up and drizzle
fell for several days. But the summer is still young. The hottest weather is yet