Klamath Basin Farmers Take Water Issue into Their Own Hands
Jeff Barnard / AP 6jul01
Protesting farmers used their bare hands to open the headgates on a Klamath Lake canal in Klamath Falls, OR
KLAMATH FALLS, OR -- The Bureau of Reclamation has threatened to call in federal marshals to stop farmers from prying open government-controlled headgates that block the flow of water to their parched fields.
More than 240,000 acres of ranches and farms normally rely on water from a federal irrigation project in southern Oregon's Klamath Basin. But this year, faced with drought and concerns for endangered fish, the government cut the flow to the irrigation canals by about 90 percent.
The farmers and ranchers who had counted on the water say the reduction has forced them to sell off cattle and let pastures turn brown.
In the past week, angry groups have wrenched opened the headgates three times. The Bureau of Reclamation closed them each time, citing the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits federal agencies from doing anything to jeopardize the survival of protected species.
"It's time to step up to the plate," said farmer and businessman Paul Arritola, who said he has lost $200,000 because of dried-up pasture.
Arritola and 75 others crowded into a meeting of the Klamath County Commission on Thursday seeking protection for those who engage in nonviolent civil disobedience against the federal government over the Klamath Project.
"We're saying our ranches are dying and we intend to do something about it. If we do end up in some civil disobedience, we expect you to be on our side," Arritola said.
The supporters brought a petition with 2,000 signatures, but the commission rejected the idea.
Commissioner Al Switzer said efforts elsewhere to assert county authority over the federal government have been struck down by federal courts.
"I know what you're going through," said Switzer, whose farm also depends on the Klamath Project. "We didn't get anyone hurt this time, but they vandalized government property. I don't think that is the message you want to send."
Commissioners said they were meeting with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Gov. John Kitzhaber about how to alleviate the landowners' plight.
An attempt to sue in federal court to immediately restore the irrigation flow failed.
The judge who rejected the request for an injunction said the landowners were unlikely to prevail in a lawsuit seeking to reverse the Bureau of Reclamation's April 7 decision to allocate nearly all water in the Klamath Project to endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake, the project's primary reservoir, and to threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River, which drains the basin.
The judge wrote that while it is clear the farmers face severe economic hardship, the threat to the survival of the fish is greater. She also cited treaty obligations to the Klamath and Yurok tribes, which have cultural and economic ties to the fish.
In the latest opening of the Klamath Project headgates, about 100 people helped cut a gate in a chain link fence Wednesday to reach one of the six headgates. Law enforcement stood by, and the water ran for about four hours until Bureau of Reclamation personnel closed the gate.
Less than 100 million gallons of water escaped, about enough for 300 acres of farmland, said bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken. The water was released into a canal that most growers have no access to.
The bureau has mechanically strengthened the headgates since the latest break and may call in federal marshals to protect them, McCracken said.
He said the FBI and U.S. Marshals were examining what action they should take and are expected to report back to the bureau Friday.
"We have a responsibility to follow the law," McCracken said.
On the fence protecting the headgate, a large hand-lettered banner had been hung Thursday reading: "Freedom? Open the gates now!!"
A representative of commercial fishermen who won a lawsuit forcing the Bureau of Reclamation to provide water for salmon in the Klamath River said he expects the federal government to bring the same level of law enforcement to the water fight as fishermen would face if they broke the law.
"If our boats had crossed the line into the Klamath Zone where they are forbidden from fishing, the Coast Guard would have been right there arresting folks," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the fishermen's association. "I don't see why we are not seeing similar arrests here."