Troubled Waters, Part II: Klamath farmers see themselves in the crosshairs

Troubled Waters, Part II: Klamath farmers see themselves in the crosshairs

By H. Bruce Miller
Source Weekly
October 03, 2007


KLAMATH FALLS – A strange-looking monument stands in front of City Hall on the main street of this Southern Oregon farming center. It’s a giant silver-painted bucket, standing at least 10 feet high.

The big bucket commemorates “the Bucket Brigade,” a highly publicized protest staged by farmers and their families in the spring of 2001.

In April, the federal government had ordered irrigation water cut off in the Klamath Basin to protect threatened salmon and sucker fish during one of the most severe droughts in the region’s history. On May 7, an estimated 10,000 people lined up shoulder to shoulder from Lake Ewauna in Klamath Falls to the A Canal of the Klamath Reclamation Project a mile away. In symbolic defiance of the federal order, for three hours they scooped water out of the lake one bucket at a time and passed the buckets down the line to the canal, where they emptied them.

Standing in the line helping to pass the buckets were Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith and Rep. Greg Walden, the state’s only Republican member of the House.

Ric Costales from Frontiers of Freedom, a right-wing group headquartered in Fairfax, VA, stood up in front of the crowd and made a ringing speech. “When the most ironclad agreements between a government and its people can be violated at the stroke of a judge’s ruling or a bureaucrat’s pen, how can this nation stand as a model to the principles of liberty and justice?” he demanded.

Almost six and a half years have passed, but Klamath farmers haven’t forgotten the Bucket Brigade, and they haven’t forgotten that the federal government made a promise over a hundred years ago when it started the mammoth Klamath Reclamation Project. It’s a promise they still expect the government to keep.

But in the 21st century the government has other responsibilities – to fishermen, to endangered species, to Native American tribes. And meeting all those responsibilities is turning out to be a tough job. It could even be an impossible one.

In June 2001, about a month after the Bucket Brigade, the U.S. Department of Interior announced there would be a review of the scientific findings that led to the irrigation cutoff. According to aWashington Post report, the review came about because Vice President Dick Cheney – aiming to boost Gordon Smith’s re-election chances in 2002 – had pushed for it.

In March 2002, a special committee of scientists reported to Congress that holding more water in Upper Klamath Lake wouldn’t do much good for threatened sucker fish, and releasing water downstream instead of using it for irrigation might actually be harmful to threatened Coho salmon. The irrigation gates were opened again.

Six months later, in September 2002, somewhere between 33,000 and 77,000 adult Chinook and Coho salmon and steelhead died while trying to make it up the Klamath and Trinity Rivers to spawn. It was the worst recorded adult salmon die-off in the history of the West.

Fishermen and conservation groups, as well as the Bush administration’s political critics, claim the decision to put water on farmers’ fields instead of in the river was a major – if not THE major – cause of the 2002 kill. It’s a claim that Klamath Basin farmers and irrigators energetically dispute.

Greg Addington is the executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, based in Klamath Falls. Ask him about the impact that irrigation has on the Klamath River and he’ll show you a brightly colored bar graph.

Farmers and irrigators measure water in acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water that will cover an acre of land one foot deep – nearly 326,000 gallons. Addington’s graph shows the amount of water diverted for the Klamath irrigation project as a tiny blue bar representing less than 300,000 acre-feet a year. The average annual flow of the Klamath River near the mouth is a big red bar – almost 12 million acre-feet.

“The question we like to ask is, okay, taking that little bit [of irrigation water] and putting it on top of the red line – is that going to make everything better?” Addington says.

But others say Addington is playing a bit of a shell game.

Comparing the volume of irrigation water with the total annual flow of the river is misleading, they say. The total flow includes the heavy runoff of the winter and spring wet season. And the irrigation water mostly gets taken out in the dry summer and fall season, which is precisely when salmon trying to ascend the river to spawn need it the most.

“I think it’s an interesting way to try to rationalize the problem,” said Steve Pedery, executive director of the conservation groupOregon Wild. “There’s this view that somehow what goes on in the Klamath Project isn’t connected to the lower river.”

“The vast majority of the flow at the mouth happens in the winter time, when [the farmers] don’t need it and fish don’t need it,” said Dave Bitts, a veteran salmon fisherman in Eureka, CA. “But when the water is scarce and everybody needs it is when they take it for irrigation.”

The Klamath farmers and irrigators also say – and the scientific findings back them up – that low water levels in the river weren’t the only culprit in the 2002 kill. It was brought on by an unusual combination of factors: a larger-than-usual number of fish returning to spawn, high water temperatures and low water levels, all of which led to a disastrous disease outbreak.

Just the same, the fishermen and conservationists maintain, the die-off might not have happened or might not have been as bad if more water had been left in the river instead of being sprayed on barley and alfalfa. Higher water levels could have allowed the fish to disperse, they say, as well as making the river a bit cooler.

“The water in the river [at the time of the fish kill] was 10 to 20 degrees higher than the water in Klamath Lake,” Pedery said. Also, “A shallow, slow-moving river tends to get warmer than a deeper, fast-flowing river.”

The farmers and irrigators also note – and again, the science supports their point – that salmon populations in the Klamath system have always fluctuated and are affected by factors beyond anybody’s control, and in some cases beyond anybody’s understanding, such as the supply of plankton in the ocean and weather phenomena like El Niño. And they point out that gill nets out at sea and predation by sea lions also take their toll, as well as overfishing and bad logging practices in the past that destroyed salmon spawning beds.

Some Klamath farmers even maintain that the irrigation project helps the ecosystem. After it’s applied to crops, they say, the irrigation water percolates down through the soil and is collected in a vast network of drains that return it to the marshes where millions of waterfowl and other wildlife live.

“If you look at the ratio of diverted water to supplied water, we are so efficient,” said Dave Solem, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District, one of 11 operating within the Klamath Project. “And it’s because of the geography. What we basically do is, all the return flows that come off the property come back into our system and we re-use it. We’re only diverting less than three acre-feet per acre [per year], which is pretty incredible when you think about it. It goes in and it comes back.”

The Klamath Project drained some 80,000 acres of marshland in Lower Klamath Lake and turned it into farmland, but farmers and irrigators will tell you that if that acreage was still marshland it would lose more water through evaporation than it takes to irrigate it today. They also say the project’s hundreds of miles of irrigation canals and ditches support a huge and diverse wildlife population of their own.

Bill Walker, a big man wearing wraparound sunglasses and carrying a cell phone that rings constantly (his ringtone is “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”) described how birds and animals were wiped out when the ditches went dry after the irrigation cutoff of 2001.

“I think hopefully the Audubon Society along with the duck guys and the pheasant guys have got a sense of how many birds they destroyed when they turned the water off in ’01,” he said. “I always wish that I’d had a camera with me and taken a picture of this mama duck – a big old beautiful mallard duck with a broken wing – and she had about two chicks left, and she was trying to walk down the canal bank. Not only did they take the water away from us guys that are trying to make a livelihood, but they destroyed all that wildlife.”

“The Endangered Species Act in this case only has prescriptions for two species,” said Bill Kennedy, a farmer and member of the board of the Klamath Basin Improvement District. “We’ve got the two sucker fish [the Lost River sucker and the short-nosed sucker] and we’ve got the [Coho salmon] on the main stem of the Klamath River. It completely ignores the needs of the wildlife that we support on our private lands here in the Klamath Basin. We have over 400 species of vertebrates that depend upon irrigation for their habitat, for their food and forage. Those went by the wayside in 2001. … [The present policy] completely ignores the whole concept of holistic resource management. It’s management by injunction by a court, and it’s wrong.”

The farmers also say agriculture benefits wildlife because ducks, geese and other migratory birds visit the fields and feast on the leavings after they’ve harvested their crops. It’s a claim that Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild, who would like to see the wetlands remain wetlands, finds amusing: “That may work for geese, but it doesn’t work so well for a salamander.”

When you talk with Klamath farmers, a theme that comes across again and again is that they feel they’re being singled out as a political target because the Klamath Reclamation Project was created and is regulated by the federal government. Instead of making the farmers and the irrigation project out to be the bad guys, they say, the government and all the stakeholders – the commercial fishermen, the Native American tribes, the conservation groups, the sport fishing groups – need to develop a comprehensive approach to managing the entire Klamath Basin ecosystem.

“It’s a 10 million [acre] watershed – there’s a lot of things going on,” said Addington. “We’re 200,000 acres of that, plus or minus. We’re not trying to tell you that we don’t play a role. We’re in the watershed, we use water, we divert it, we return what we don’t use. But politically we’re a federal irrigation project, so we’re an easy entity for somebody to get their hands on. And that’s what happened.”

“We’re in the crosshairs,” agreed Kennedy. “We’re the focus. And it’s not necessarily justified. An issue that never seems to be brought to the table is the condition of our watershed. There’s absolutely no management of federal forestlands in the watershed in the Klamath River Basin, and the result has been less percolation of water, less recharge of groundwater.”

The farmers and ranchers say they’re hoping for a reasonable agreement to emerge from the ongoing Klamath Settlement Group talks. The negotiations are confidential, but Addington – who’s taking part in them on behalf of the Klamath Water Users Association, one of the 27 parties involved – said the water users are insisting on three general points:

“One, this project was built on the ability to move water around. So being able to … manage the energy costs, that has been one of our main things. But that doesn’t mean anything if we don’t know if we’re going to have water. So a reliable supply of water was our second point. We’re month to month every year, and for planning purposes, when you’re trying to raise a crop or manage a system, that’s a terrible place to be. We want some security on the water situation.

“And then the third thing is, we’ve used the generic term ‘safe harbor.’ And what that means is, if there’s an effort to reintroduce or to introduce salmon here in the upper basin … we want to be in a position to welcome the fish back, not to worry about our continued existence because they’re here.”

Addington believes the parties are willing to compromise and is hoping a satisfactory solution will come out of the talks. But not all the farmers in the basin put much trust in the good faith of those on the other side.

“Other people involved in this thing tend to blame, blame, blame, and their solutions are not reasonable or implementable,” said Kennedy. “They’re about to shut off irrigation water to some of the most prosperous farmland in the world.”

Then he lifted his hands in a gesture of mixed disgust and resignation. “But maybe it’s not that important anymore,” he said.

One thing seems certain: The farmers and ranchers of the Klamath Basin aren’t going to easily give up the land that they – and in many cases their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents – have lived and worked on for decades.

Bill Walker’s grandparents came to the basin and started dairy farming before the 1920s. He himself has been farming there since 1972.

“The government came in and said to the veterans [after World War I], ‘We’re gonna give you water,’” he said. “We’ve kept our word, and now I think the U.S. government should keep its word.”

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