Time to Take Action
Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.


Water history
2001, A summer of struggle in the Klamath Basin
By Lee Juillerrat 12/16/07 Herald and News

Barbra Martin raises her arms and cheers as she goes over the fence at the A Canal headgates in Klamath Falls, Aug. 29, 2001.

   The water crisis in summer 2001 was a time no one wants to relive.
   That summer — dubbed the Summer of Struggle — was when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cut off irrigation water to 180,000 acres of pasture and farmlands, a decision that impacted farmers and ranchers and rippled through the entire region, both socially and economically.
   Ever since, people fret when winter seems too long coming. Skiers still pray for snow, but so does everyone else who experienced that summer of tensions, when a sparse snowpack translated to low water levels in Upper Klamath Lake and triggered decisions to cut off irrigation water.
   The water cutoffs were, and weren’t, a surprise.
Federal agencies signaled problems in February 2001 when they said drought conditions could mean water would go to fish, not farmers. When the skies proved relatively dry in February and March, and lake levels dropped below what biologists said was necessary for coho salmon and shortnose and Lost River suckers, concern mounted.
Shock, then anger
When the announcement came April 6 — no water for irrigators — the immediate reaction was quiet shock. The anger came later, and loudly. In the months that followed, no
Compiled from Bureau of Reclamation and Herald & News archives:


Peter Skene Ogden, fur trapper, enters the Klamath Basin.


Settlers begin to move west to Oregon and California.

1882: Farmers begin irrigating in the Klamath Basin.    

The Linkville Water Ditch Company is incorporated and a shallow canal is dug connecting Linkville town lots to Link River above present day Klamath Falls. The Van Brimmer brothers also start a small canal to irrigate 4,000 acres near the California border. During the early days of settling, homesteaders in Bonanza begin using native suckers for fertilizer and oil. They attempt to get laws passed to prevent Native Americans, who have fished for suckers for centuries, from catching them.


J. Frank Adams completes a six-mile canal from the Lost River to Adam’s Point. Originally his canal received water from White Lake, but after a dry winter, he tapped Lower Klamath Lake as a more secure supply.


Charles and Rufus Moore excavate a canal on the west side of the Link River to furnish power to a sawmill and float logs down from Upper Klamath Lake. The brothers build a second canal to water gardens and orchards in west Klamath Falls.


The Linkville ditch is taken over by the Klamath Falls Irrigation Company and turned into a highcapacity canal known as the Ankeny-Henley Canal.

1902: Congress passes the Reclamation Act.    

The U.S. Reclamation Service becomes the Bureau of Reclamation.


John T. Whistler, Oregon District engineer of the U.S. Reclamation Service, recommends a dam at the mouth of Upper Klamath Lake to retain enough water to irrigate 200,000 acres. Others recommend Clear Lake, 66 miles southeast in California, as an alternative reservoir.


Reclamation Service Director Fredrick H. Newell visits the Klamath Basin and says the Interior Secretary is likely to approve a federal irrigation project. Three men named Hawkins, Brown and Gold incorporate the Klamath Canal Company and file a water rights claim for an amount of water equal to the entire flow of the Link River.


Residents petition the government for a project.


Approval of the Klamath Project requires Oregon and California, as well as private water rights holders, to relinquish those rights to the federal government, but not all are willing to sell. On April 7, the Reclamation Service buys rights to land and water from owners of the Little Klamath Ditch, the Ankeny-Henley Canal and the Jesse D. Carr Land & Livestock Co.

two days were the same.
   Sen. Gordon Smith and Rep. Greg Walden seemed to take up residence. Gov. John Kitzhaber, a more reluctant visitor, was verbally abused when he visited Klamath Falls a few days later.
   Bucket Brigade
   The anger was channeled, literally, in May for the Bucket Brigade. Thousands of people, including Walden and Smith, lined Main Street between the Link River and A Canal to pass 50 buckets of water.
   Restraint was tested throughfor $337,500, but owners of the Klamath Canal Co. hold out for $200,000 for their rights. Reclamation officials doubt the value and legality of their claim and order them not to divert any water, but the company does so anyway. Reclamation obtains a temporary restraining order. The dispute between the company and the Reclamation Service marks the first legal battle over who gets water and who doesn’t in the Klamath Basin.
March 4, 1905: The Klamath Water Users Association is organized.    April 25, 1905:

Reclamation agrees to pay Hawkins, Brown and Gold $150,000 for their rights and interest in the Klamath Canal Company. The Project begins.

May 15, 1905:

After Oregon, California and the U.S. complete the necessary legislation, Secretary of Interior Ethan Hitchcock authorizes $4.4 million to build the Klamath Project. The government immediately allocates $1 million to begin construction.

1906: Construction begins on the A Canal using horse teams.    

Heavy snows and wet weather delay construction.


Construction on the A Canal headworks is completed by June. Work begins on the East Branch (B) Canal and Keno Power Canal. A levee is constructed by an agreement between Reclamation and the California and Northeastern Railway, paralleling the present Highway 97 south of Klamath Falls.


President Teddy Roosevelt establishes the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s first waterfowl refuge. Construction begins on the South Branch (C) Canal. The canal requires a 4,300-foot flume across the Lost River slough. In September excavation begins on Clear Lake Dam. Originally water was to cost farmers $20 a month, but in 1908 Reclamation raises the fee to $30. Farmers refuse to pay the extra charge. In 1909 the government halts work. The water users association gives in and work resumes.


Austrians, Montenegrins and Serbians continue construction on Clear Lake Dam. Dikes are built to the south of the dam to retain floodwaters.


Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge established. Construction begins on the Lost River Diversion Dam and Lost River Diversion Channel.


Reclamation begins experimental farms in drained Tule Lake marshes, but plowing and growing prove difficult.


175 homesteaders file for 42 tracts of land. Klamath Falls begins to grow rapidly; other towns, including Merrill, Malin and Midland grow more slowly or lose residents. Reclamation signs an agreement with the California
out the summer as farmers gathered and camped near the A Canal headgates. Tension rose when protesters decided signs and quiet vigils weren’t enough. In late June, people began climbing fences and illegally opening the gates.
   Klamath Tea Party
   Tensions ramped higher July 4, the day known as the Klamath Tea Party. Protesters, shielded by a human wall, again cut open the gates. Ten days later government officials called in federal marshals. The once-cordial atmosphere eroded to serious confrontations that many feared would lead to violence.
Oregon Power Company (COPCO) to build and operate the Link River Dam.

Construction begins on the Link River Dam July 29 at the mouth of Upper Klamath Lake.


Construction begins on the Lower Lost River Diversion Dam (Anderson-Rose Dam) and the J Canal to serve the Tulelake area.


Homestead entries are opened to World War I veterans. Work begins on the Malone Dam.


Construction begins on the Miller Diversion Dam, Gerber Dam and North Canal in Langell Valley.


Potatoes and alfalfa become important Basin crops.


Horsefly, Langell Valley, Sunnyside, Malin and Shasta irrigation districts are formed about this time. Klamath Falls grows to 10,000 people. Water is being delivered to about 21,000 acres. Depression and war.


Tule Lake and Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuges are established.


Two Civilian Conservation Corps work camps are established on the Klamath Project. In the 1920s and 30s, Reclamation widens and lines existing canals, replaces the C Canal wooden flume with a concrete one, and expands and modifies Clear Lake Dam.


Construction begins on the Tule Lake division with the P and P-1 Canals. Workers begin the Sheepy Ridge tunnel, a 6,600-foot east-west culvert that drains Tule Lake into lower Klamath Lake.


Pumping plant D is built to lift water from Tule Lake into the tunnel. With World War II, armed guards are stationed at project facilities and the Army selects the area for an internment camp. Housing for up to 16,000 Japanese-American citizens is constructed. Some German prisoners of war are also located at a site northwest of Tule Lake. They are put to work clearing moss from canals.


Lands for relocation camps are returned to the Project. A second wave of homestead entries attracts World War II veterans.


The Federal Energy Regulatory licenses a series of dams on the Klamath River.

1957: The Klamath River Compact between Oregon and California and the U.S. sets goals and objectives for water management on the Klamath River.    1958:

The Klamath Forest National Wildlife Refuge is established.


Iron Gate Dam is built on the Klamath River.


Passage of the Kuchel Act ends homesteading and dedicates the remaining Project acres to the other major purpose of waterfowl management, but with full consideration to optimum agricultural use. The law enrolls

   R el ief ca me Ju ly 24 when Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced some water could be released because lake levels were higher than predicted. A day later, the gates opened and allowed irrigation water to flow through the A Canal.
   Then Klamath Falls Police Lt. Jack Redfield, wearing a uniform and surrounded by other officers (who were unaware of Redfield’s intentions), said “an extremely violent response” was likely if environmentalists continued efforts to protect the endangered species. The marshals, who had been scheduled to leave, stayed.
   Bucket remains
   Several water users suffered severe economic losses and, worse, bankruptcy. The last major visible expression came in August, when a convoy of supporters from around the West paraded into Klamath Falls and held rallies at the Klamath County Courthouse. They left behind the huge bucket that still sits in front of the courthouse — and remains controversial.
   During the ongoing crisis, federal government employees were targeted. One store put up signs telling government workers they weren’t welcome. Some took to not wearing uniforms, and not driving government rigs.
   Oddly, it took the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to finally end the water crisis. The headgates camp was disbanded and the federal marshals departed.
17,000 acres on Tule Lake refuge and 5,000 acres on Lower Klamath refuge in a lease program for farming. At first, farmers oppose the Kuchel Act, because they see it as a threat. Later, as environmental issues mount, they come to embrace the law for guaranteeing their right to farm on rich refuge soils.

The National Environmental Policy Act is passed, requiring federal agencies to analyze the impact of their actions on the land.

1973: The Endangered Species Act is passed.    1975:

Oregon begins to adjudicate Klamath River water rights.


A drought strikes the Pacific Northwest, producing a record low snowpack across a wide region.


The bald eagle is declared a threatened species on Feb. 14. Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge is established to protect bald eagle roost sites. In the 1980s, scientists for the Klamath Tribes and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife grow concerned about the status of suckers in the Klamath Basin.

1988: The Lost River and shortnose suckers are declared endangered species on July 18.    1990s:

From 1989 to 2001, a series of biological opinions repeatedly find the Project jeopardizes the suckers. Also during the 1990s, the roles of the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers are first called into question with publication of “Cadillac Desert,” written by Marc Reisner. The book chronicles the history of the Bureau of Reclamation and the development of dams for reclamation, flood control and power generation throughout the West, their adverse environmental effects, and the influence of powerful California business interests in controlling water development. Droughts and fish kills.


A drought focuses attention on the role of lake levels in protecting sucker habitat. The wildlife service recommends Upper Klamath Lake be kept above a minimum elevation of 4,139 feet during summer months, although it allowed that the lake could drop to as low as 4,137 feet in four out of 10 years. Other steps are recommended, including fish ladders, screens and a sucker salvage program to remove suckers each fall when canals are drained and return them to the lake. For the first time in the Klamath Reclamation Project’s history, irrigation deliveries are curtailed.

April 1993:

A final recovery plan for suckers is approved by the wildlife service.


A second drought hits the Klamath Basin. The surface elevation of Upper Klamath Lake falls to 4,136.86 on Sept. 27, the lowest level since records began in 1905.
 With salmon stocks dwindling, commercial fishing for coho salmon is halted from Washington to California.
Dec. 1, 1994:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes a rule defining critical sucker habitat in Clear Lake Reservoir.

Reclamation begins operating according to an annual plan. Klamath Province steelhead trout are proposed for ESA protection.

Large numbers of suckers die in a series of fish kills.

Reclamation agrees to meet minimum instream flows below Iron Gate Dam to protect habitat for anadromous fish. 

   During the 1990s, scientists studying the lake begin to focus on the roles of algae, nutrients, temperature, ammonia and alkalinity in triggering periodic die-offs of suckers.

An Interior Department solicitor published a legal opinion that water for Native American tribal trust obligations and endangered species take precedence over deliveries of irrigation water to farmers and wildlife refuges.
June 6, 1997:

Coho salmon are listed as a threatened species.

Winter storms bury Oregon with the heaviest snows since 1974. Record snowfall is recorded at Crater Lake.

Critical habitat is defined for the coho. On July 12, a biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service concludes project operations would affect, but not likely jeopardize, coho. 

   A controversial study by Thomas Hardy, a Utah State University hydrologist, is published in the fall. It calls for instream flows to protect the fish far higher than those set by FERC, or those agreed to by Reclamation in 1996.
1995 - 2001:

As scientists learn more about suckers and the lake, they begin to suspect that fish die-offs entail more factors than previously known and begin to call for higher lake levels. After 1997, Reclamation operates the project to maintain the level of Upper Klamath Lake above the required minimum.

At a conference of environmental groups and wildlife refuge officials, Klamath Project farmers announce they are willing to sell as much as 30,000 acres of farm land, following four years of profitless growing. Imperial Holly announces it will no longer contract to grow sugar beets, a major Basin crop, in Oregon and shuts down its northern California refineries. 

   In autumn, Congress approves the Klamath Basin Water Supply Initiative. It authorizes the Bureau of Reclamation to study ways to improve water storage and quality in the Basin. Potato farmers, hit by another profitless season, seek to have the federal government buy a portion of their crop for dumping.


The 2001 Water Crisis


— Lack of snowfall presages another drought. As winter wanes, stream and snowpack conditions predict a serious shortage of water.


— Klamath Project officials warn farmers that a drought may leave them without water.

Feb. 22

— Federal officials declare a drought.

March 1

— Project manager Karl Wirkus announces irrigating water may not be available.

March 9

— Project farmers stage a rally at the Bureau of Reclamation offices. More than 400 participate. Environmentalists file notice they will sue if water is diverted to farms.

March 13

— A new biological opinion from the wildlife service calls for a minimum elevation in Upper Klamath Lake of 4,140 feet above sea level to protect suckers.

March 19

— A new biological opinion calls for increased flows below Iron Gate Dam to protect coho salmon habitat.

March 21

— Sen. Gordon Smith chairs a congressional hearing to review the new biological opinions.

March 26

— Federal officials meet in Klamath Falls to explain the science behind the biological opinions. Refuge managers begin making contingency plans to address a water cut-off.

March 29

— Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber declares a drought and asks Secretary of Agriculture to provide emergency aid.

March 30

— Sen. Gordon Smith asks President Bush to help resolve the dilemma.

March 31

— The Klamath Project’s 2000 operating plan expires.

April 1-2

— Interior Department, Klamath Project officials and scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are called to Washington, D.C., to review the biological opinions and proposed 2001 operating plan. Discussions continue through the weekend with Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff.

April 3

— Rep. Greg Walden, Sen. Gordon Smith and Sen. Ron Wyden request aid.

April 4

— A district court judge rules the Klamath Project is in violation of the Endangered Species Act and cannot deliver irrigating water. The judge also declares the Hardy Phase I report the “best available science” for protecting coho salmon. No water for Klamath Project.

April 6

— The Department of Interior announces that no irrigation water will be available from Upper Klamath Lake. A compromise lake elevation is arrived at to protect sucker habitat and provide sufficient water for salmon. Clear Lake and Gerber Reservoir are tapped for 70,000 acre-feet of water for farmers in Langell Valley and Horsefly irrigation districts. The Department of Agriculture approves emergency aid for the Project’s 1,500 farmers.

April 7

— Sen. Gordon Smith comes to Klamath Falls for a town hall meeting and promises aid to farms, ranches and communities.

April 12

— Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and various local, California and Oregon state officials and federal representatives meet with more than 6,000 people at Klamath County Fairgrounds.

May 7

— Thousands of people line Main Street to illegally pass buckets of water from Lake Ewauna to the A Canal. World War II vet Jess Prosser scoops the first bucket in a ceremonial act of defiance attended by Walden and Smith.

June 13

— American Land Conservancy offers a plan to buy farm land and take it out of production.

June 16

— Six Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources listen to testimony on the Endangered Species Act at the Klamath County Event Center.

June 30

— Unknown people/person illegally opens the A Canal headgates, beginning several days of opening and closing of the gates.

July 4

— The Klamath Tea Party. Protesters cut open the gates to the A Canal headgate area, beginning a summer-long confrontation between protesters and authorities.

July 14

— Federal marshals move in to control the headgates.

July 21

— Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger tells marshals they should leave, but they don’t.

July 24

— Interior Secretary Gale Norton announces that some water can be released from Upper Klamath Lake because there is more water in the lake than previously predicted.

July 25

— Water finally begins to flow, legally, into the A Canal. A speech at the A Canal headgates by Klamath Falls Police Lt. Jack Redfield warning of “an extremely violent response” against environmentalists causes a furor.

Aug. 20

— Hundreds of vehicles from several states parade through Klamath Falls in a show of support for local farmers. Included in the parade was the giant bucket placed in front of the Klamath County Courthouse. The controversial bucket remains in place.

Sept. 13

— A truce is called because the nation’s and world’s attention is focused on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.




Home Contact


              Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

             Copyright © klamathbasincrisis.org, 2007, All Rights Reserved