For most of last spring, journalists from around the world covered the fight over water in the Klamath Basin. Nearly 1,400 farmers and ranchers were left in a cloud of dust after their irrigation water was shut off in this rich agricultural region straddling the Oregon/California border. The water was being reserved for two species of endangered suckerfish and threatened coho salmon.

But, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's (BOR) April 6, 2001, announcement that the Klamath Irrigation Project would not receive its allotted 400,000-acre feet of water (afw) was just the beginning. As the summer wore on, farmers demonstrated in the streets of Klamath Falls, OR, trying to be heard over the din of environmentalists, Indian tribes and commercial fishermen.

Today, water is again flowing in the canals; but festering memories, unresolved issues and new challenges make the Klamath anything but a happy spot.

Enter A Welfare State

Early on in the Klamath crisis, the California Office of Emergency Services (OES) tried to plug the political backwash by pouring $5 million into fast-track groundwater development. Then, USDA and the U.S. Small Business Administration offered emergency loans to farmers.

The California legislature approved $8 million for a myriad of projects to assist the Tulelake community, including job programs for laid-off farm workers. And, Congress approved $20 million in disaster relief.

Late in July, Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced that due to higher than anticipated lake levels, about 75,000 afw would be released from Upper Klamath Lake for watering livestock, recharging wells and saving some pastures and alfalfa crops.

Meanwhile, producers were calling it quits. Even as fall rains came and the snow finally started to pile up in the high country, farmsteads — where weeds replaced fields of hay, barley, grains, onions, potatoes, mint and horseradish — were left abandoned.

A joint study by Oregon State University and the University of California-Berkeley estimates the regional economy lost $134 million. Other estimates peg the impact at more than $220 million.

The entire Klamath Basin community spent the winter wondering what would happen to their water in 2002.

A reprieve came this spring in a report by a committee of the National Academy of Science (NAS). The report concluded there was no “substantial scientific foundation” for changing the operation of the Klamath Project for endangered sucker populations. In addition, the committee found that water added from Klamath Lake and other reservoirs to main stem rivers could exceed lethal temperatures for coho salmon during the summer months.

Based on that report and predictions of an average amount of water this year, the BOR proposed resuming full irrigation deliveries. The decision also considers the requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the treaty rights of Indian tribes, as well as contractual obligations to provide water to farmers.

Too Late For This Year

“Yeah, it looks like we'll have water for irrigation this summer,” says Bob Gasser, Merrill, OR. “But, no one's counting on irrigation water as a sure thing. Even if we do get enough water to get us through the summer, we've got a long way to go before we can get back to normal operation.”

Gasser, who owns Basin Fertilizer and Chemical Co., saw business drop 70% as agriculturists shut down their equipment and walked away from their fields. Gasser recovered some business by expanding his geographical reach, but his Klamath-related accounts are now few and far between.

“People are afraid to budge,” he continues. “They pulled the rug out once; they can do it again.”

Actually this year might even be tougher than last, Gasser says. With collateral values demolished, it was nearly impossible for producers to get operating loans to even get started. Plus, he adds, many of the Klamath crops are grown under contracts.

“Those contracts are pretty much gone. We may never get them back,” says Gasser. Adding more injury, farm labor has either left for greener fields or can't be lured back from the shelter of a new welfare system.

“People need to know that drought wasn't the issue last year,” says Gasser. “We've had droughts before, and there was enough water to go around.”

Deb Crisp, executive director of the Tulelake Growers Association, says reduced water deliveries have devastated the local agricultural economy. For property tax purposes, local government revenue declined by about $480,000.

“But, the economic estimates don't take into account any long-run impacts,” she says. These include the effects on land values; costs associated with re-establishing perennial crops; herd liquidation and restocking; loss of market contracts; and reduced tax revenues and government services.

Unresolved Water Rights

Adding to the long-term woes are unresolved water rights issues involving Indian tribes. This winter, District Judge Owen Panner, Portland, OR, reaffirmed that the Klamath Indian Tribes hold a water right priority date of “time immemorial” in the Upper Klamath Basin. This ruling supported Indians' claims of water and left questions of how their claims impact other water uses.

In other action, a loose-knit organization representing commercial fishing in the Lower Klamath Basin has warned the Bush administration that its plan to deliver irrigation water in the Klamath Reclamation Project is likely to violate the ESA unless more water is devoted to salmon.

“The fish in the Klamath Basin still need water,” says Todd True of Earth-justice, an environmentalist public interest law firm. True says the biological assessment, the procedural first step required under the ESA before the federal government can deliver water to the Klamath Project, appeared to provide less water for salmon than last year.

Forest Alliance, an environmental group opposed to farming, placed bids in March on federal lease lands in the Tulelake and Lower Klamath national wildlife refuges. They planned to out-bid agriculturists and let the land sit idle, saving the water for wetland purposes. The attempt failed when a local barley producer out-bid them.

Feds To The Rescue

Meanwhile, President Bush created the Cabinet-level Klamath River Basin Federal Working Group to advise him on immediate steps and long-term solutions in the Klamath. Installation of fish screens at head gates, forest stream improvement projects, money for water quality improvements and financial assistance for farmers and ranchers were among the initiatives announced.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) used the crisis to advance legislation allowing for permanent acquisition of water, water rights and land in the Klamath Basin and elsewhere. Water rights transferred or acquired under the plan would be used to protect endangered, sensitive and threatened species.

A growing number of Klamath Basin residents see $175 million in federal farm bill money as a key to resolving the basin's water struggles. The money would pay for wetland restoration, research and conservation measures to avoid conflicting demands of endangered species and farmers. However, the Klamath Water Users Association contends that the money, which also would provide for retiring farmland to reduce water demand, doesn't do nearly enough for farmers who want to keep farming.

“Environmentalists see buyouts as a vital step in easing demand for water in the basin,” says rancher Mike Byrne, Tulelake, CA. “Farmers see it as a means of moving them off their fields.”

Bill Kennedy, a rancher in Poe Valley, OR, doesn't think the farm bill money should be used to entice farmers and ranchers to sell land and water and stop farming.

“We can all get along here without permanently retiring farms and ranches,” explains Kennedy.

“The government created these problems and their decisions were not based on science,” adds Byrne. “The government needs to fix the problem. Federal money should help support farmers' needs, not be used to create farming disincentives.”

Additional water reservoirs are critically needed in the Klamath and many other regions of the country, says U.S. Rep. Wally Herger (R-CA). More importantly, he believes those trying to turn farmland into federal or public land must be turned back.

“We have to draw a line,” says Herger. “If we don't, it's only a matter of time before there's another lack of water, and it will be very easy for radical environmentalists to buy out the water.”

Byrne says beyond the short-term fixes, farmers and ranchers in the Klamath need a longer-term plan to provide water for irrigation. He says water problems in the Klamath won't go away until water storage needs are addressed.

“There are areas where we could build more and deeper water storage facilities. That would help immensely,” says Byrne. Beyond that, Byrne says the Klamath crisis highlights many of the ESA's failings and illustrates why the act should be reformed, discarded or re-drafted.

“A good share of the U.S. and perhaps part of the world is aware of what's going on here,” adds Herger. “At least, a lot more people now know agriculture is at a crossroads in the Klamath, if not elsewhere, because of the issue of endangered species.”

Meanwhile, Klamath farmers and ranchers just want assurances that they will get a fair share of available water.

“We're not out of the woods yet — not by any stretch,” says Byrne. “There are just a lot of unresolved issues here. We've got a lot more work to do.”

A Klamath History Lesson

Under the 1902 Reclamation Act, California and Oregon ceded extensive Klamath Basin wetlands to the federal government for agricultural reclamation. The Klamath Project was authorized in 1905 and today includes the Link River, Gerber, Clear Lake and Anderson-Rose dams as well as nearly 142,000 acres of wetlands and wildlife refuges.

Much of the drained wetlands were offered for homesteads, with preference going first to veterans of World War I and later World War II.

In 1957, the two states formed the Klamath Compact. This established a hierarchical priority of use — domestic, irrigation, recreation (including for fish and wildlife), industrial and hydroelectric power.

In 1988, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the Lost River sucker and the Short-nosed sucker under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 1992 and 1994, FWS recommended that Upper Klamath Lake be kept above a minimum summer elevation of 4,137 ft. to protect the fish.

In 1996, the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) agreed to meet certain minimum instream flows to protect habitat for Tribal Trust resources in anadromous fish. In 1997, the coho salmon was listed as threatened.

A study published in 2000 concluded that instream flows to protect fish should be much higher than what the BOR agreed to in 1996. In 2001, a new FWS biological opinion set a minimum elevation for suckerfish in Upper Klamath Lake of 4,140 ft. with no exceptions for drought years. And, a new biological opinion (BO) called for increased flows for the coho salmon.

Governors John Kitzhaber (OR) and Gray Davis (CA) declared a drought emergency for the Klamath Basin in March 2001. On April 6, the BOR announced that given the BO and ESA requirements, there would be no water available from Upper Klamath Lake for irrigation to the Klamath Project.