Hundreds of Western ranchers and farmers have their backs against the wall after a ruling by a federal judge diverts their irrigation water to protect "endangered" fish species.

An epic water war has precipitated in an arid region straddling the Oregon-California border. For the Klamath River Basin the question is a contemporary one: water for agriculture or fish?

The fight for the Klamath water has been simmering for years between the agriculture community and those who want the fish protected.

This spring the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) implemented an interim water management plan that allocated nearly all water in the Klamath Irrigation Project to supporting two species of endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake, the project's primary reservoir.

The decision also will maintain streamflows for threatened coho and chinook salmon in the lower stretches of the Klamath River.

Local salmon fishermen, Indian tribes, the Wilderness Society, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and other groups have worked to see the irrigation water shut off to more than 1,500 basin ranching and farming families.

After providing for the needs of the fish, the BOR had no water left for 90% of the 250,000 acres of land irrigated by the Klamath Project.

The fight came to a head in late April. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken denied a last minute plea to restore irrigation water in the Klamath Basin, citing treaty obligations with two tribes and the Endangered Species Act's (ESA) protection of endangered fish.

She advised ranchers to give up their several lawsuits and seek a long-term solution through negotiations.

Judge Aiken wrote that while it is clear that the farmers face severe economic hardship, the threat to the survival of the fish is greater. And under treaty obligations to the Klamath and Yurok tribes, which have cultural and economic ties to the fish, and the Endangered Species Act, the bureau had no choice, she said.

Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe sympathizes with the ranchers and farmers. "But their use of the limited water available in the Klamath Basin needs to be reduced," he says.

"It’s no secret that this calamity is due to a shortage of water and an abundance of government regulation," says Lynn Cornwell, Glasgow, MT, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. "The culprit in this case – as it has been in many others – is the Endangered Species Act – simply put, the most sweeping and destructive set of government regulations affecting wise land use management in this country."

The NCBA has sent a letter to the President asking his help in the Klamath. But local producers show little enthusiasm in government assistance. Without income from production, there’s not much interest in things like low-interest federal loans.

"Let me make something very clear – it’s not in our nature to ask the government for help in running our cattle operations," explains rancher Mike Byrne, Tulelake, CA.

"We’d just as soon be free to manage as environmental and economic conditions permit," says Byrne. "But, the government got us into this mess – and now they can help us get through it."

According to the court ruling, the BOR violated the Endangered Species Act by continuing to supply farming irrigation without first studying the needs of the fish, and they cannot deliver water to the irrigation system until they come up with a plan to protect the fish.

"Farmers can get by in a hard year with drought assistance from the federal government," explains Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "However, fish have only one river, and if they go extinct they are gone forever, and so are the communities which depend upon them for food and for their livelihoods. There are a lot more jobs at risk here than just farm jobs."

Excerpts from Judge Aiken’s Ruling

"While the court sympathizes with the plaintiffs and their plight, I am bound by oath to uphold the law. The law requires the protection of suckers and salmon as endangered and threatened species and as tribal resources."

"Under the ESA, BOR must not engage in any action that is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a threatened or endangered species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of the critical habitat of such a species."

"Finally, BOR must also consider the rights of Indian tribes who hold fishing and water treaty rights in the Klamath River Basin."

"The court recognizes the harm that could be suffered by the plaintiffs and surrounding communities. However, the court must balance that harm against the harm to the suckers and salmon, those who rely on the fish, as well as the public interest."

"The NMFS and FWS have determined that continued Project operations will cause jeopardy to the continuing existence of the suckers and coho salmon."

"Given the high priority the law places on species threatened with extinction, I cannot find that the balance of hardships tip sharply in plaintiffs’ favor."

"Plaintiffs’ contract rights to irrigation water are subservient to ESA and tribal trust requirements."

Judge Aiken’s complete ruling can be found at: Scroll down to: Order Denying Plaintiff Irrigation Districts' Request for Injunction (#112 - 30 April 30, 2001).