Bucket Brigade for ESA reform
by Ric Costales
Published In: Environment &
Climate News, Publication date: 08/01/2001 Publisher: The
April 6, 2001, is a day that will live in infamy in the lives of
thousands of people in the Klamath Basin region of Northern
California and Southern Oregon.
That was the day the Bureau of Reclamation, based on a federal
judge's ruling that sided with extremist "environmental"
organizations, cut off irrigation water from a federally
administered project to over 200,000 acres involving 1,400 farms
and ranches in the basin.
In depriving these people of their water, Judge Sandra Armstrong's
ruling will result in an economic loss estimated at $400 million
this year alone; the dislocation of hundreds of
agriculture-dependent families; the bankruptcy of an estimated 40
percent of Klamath Project farmers and ranchers; and untold havoc
to regional social services, schools, families, businesses,
communities, and even wildlife dependent on water from this
And all of this will have been done in the name of threatened or
endangered species protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Rally attracts 20,000 protestors
As might be expected, people in the region are not taking this
assault on their water rights and livelihoods lying down. On May
7, the largest rally the nation has yet seen over ESA-related
issues was held to dramatize the need for reform. The Klamath
County Sheriff Department, in charge of crowd control, estimated
the number of participants at roughly 20,000.
That so many people from all over the United States would come to
a relatively isolated area on a work day illustrates the gravity
of a situation rapidly heading toward a major confrontation
between the federal government and the people whose rights it was
created to protect.
The Klamath River Basin situation is unlike other "run of the
mill" ESA tragedies. Here, the federal government is slapping this
calamity on WWI and WWII veterans and their descendants--who
risked their lives defending the principles for which this nation
A promise broken
In the interest of promoting agricultural production to feed our
growing nation and the world, at the turn of the century the
federal government proposed an irrigation project and lured
homesteaders to the Klamath River Basin area. Once to WWI veterans
and twice to WWII vets, the feds freely deeded water and land to
them and their heirs in perpetuity, with the stipulation that the
homesteaders repay the costs of the project.
The costs were repaid in full a number of years ago, and the
annual costs of administering the program are also paid. The
farmers have kept their end of the bargain.
Not so the feds. Between the National Marine Fisheries Service on
behalf of the Coho salmon, and the Fish and Wildlife Service on
behalf of two species of suckerfish, the feds claimed the entire
amount of water flowing through the project this year and an
estimated six out of 10 future years.
Drought is cited as the reason, although the lakes from which the
water is drawn are at record levels and water is being spilled at
exceptionally high volumes. Many residents along the Klamath River
describe the river as "plumb full" . . . yet no water is being
shared with farmers in urgent need of establishing at least a
cover crop to prevent soil loss, estimated at 4 tons per acre this
Enter the Bucket Brigade
Grassroots activists from the region developed an idea, a
variation on a theme that originated in Jarbridge, Nevada, to
dramatize the situation. In Jarbridge, a "shovel brigade" was
convened to open a road closed by federal government actions on
behalf of another supposedly endangered fish. The Jarbridge folks
were extremely successful in drawing national attention to a local
ESA problem--and that was the outcome desired by the Bucket
Buckets of water would be passed hand to hand from Klamath Lake
through downtown Klamath Falls into an irrigation ditch at the
other end of town--perhaps the longest bucket brigade on record!
This act would not only symbolize whose water it was, but also
illustrate the determination of the people to whom it belonged. As
I put it at the time I proposed the concept to community leaders,
it was "time to dump a little tea in the harbor."
There were many in the region who felt the federal government's
action justified a far more radical response. It is a measure of
the dedication these communities feel to this country's ideals
that respect for the process prevailed and a successful rally and
follow-up in Washington, DC were held.
There is no telling what will ultimately transpire as a result of
the seizure of water rights in the Klamath Basin. But the history
books will surely record that the people in the region measured up
in every way to the level of respect for American principles that
prompted the original homesteaders to defend these ideals so
honorably in battle on foreign lands.
Behind and beyond the Bucket Brigade
Before the Bucket Brigade, the agricultural community had focused
its efforts on lobbying and legal wrangling. No attention had been
paid to developing and organizing grassroots support for the
area's agriculture. As other natural resource development
interests, most notably timber and mining, have found, this can be
a fatal neglect.
Throughout the planning, staging, and follow-up to the Bucket
Brigade, correcting this deficiency was the primary focus. The
difficulty, as in any political effort, was how to motivate people
to become involved.. Americans often seem to have little sympathy
for job loss, the attendant hardship, or even the economic and
social withering of communities.
There may, however, be growing recognition that there are limits
to people's tolerance for such hardball.
It is one thing for misfortune to befall families or communities
as a result of market or other natural forces. It is quite another
to have those tragedies take place as a result of government
action . . . and it is particularly painful when government action
violates the rights and spirit of justice that Americans regard as
By uniting behind the principles that should guide the federal
government's relationship with its people, there may yet be hope
to reform such misguided efforts as the ESA. The challenge is how
to educate a population that is becoming less aware of these
principles with each succeeding generation.
It will be far worse than taking their water, if the veteran
homesteaders from the Klamath Basin are rewarded for their
sacrifice by America's abandonment of those hard-won ideals.
Ric Costales is a member of Frontiers of Freedom/People for the
USA and was instrumental in organizing the Klamath Bucket Brigade.