'Us now, you're next,' say
Massive 'Bucket Brigade' demonstration to
protest court-ordered water shut-off
KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. -- Outraged at the
impending destruction of an entire rural
community, thousands of protesters are expected
today in this small rural town in south-central
Oregon in an outpouring of support for the 1,400
farm families whose lives have been savaged by an
unprecedented court-ordered cut-off of irrigation
water from Upper Klamath Lake -- an order prompted
by environmentalists' concerns over the survival
of two species of sucker fish and a species of
They're here from all parts of the West,
arriving by bus, car and plane, with hand-painted
signs and banners waving, hoping to draw public
awareness to the plight of the farmers.
Politicians of various stripes are on the speakers
list, which has expanded exponentially -- Rep.
Greg Walden, R-Ore., Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif.
and U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., among them.
"We've got 20 or 30 politicians coming in,"
says Bob Gasser, one of the rally organizers.
"It's just sort of grown."
The highlight of the event will be the
noon-scheduled Bucket Brigade, when farmers and
their sympathizers form a human chain to transport
water, person-to-person, from Upper Klamath Lake
to the main canal of the irrigation system in a
symbolic act of solidarity. (To view map of
Klamath Basin area, click
"We have 50 buckets, one for every state in the
union," says Gasser, owner of Basin Fertilizer and
Chemicals in Merrill, Ore. Actually, he explains,
the water will be taken from Lake Ewana, a small
lake that's fed by a river from Upper Klamath
Lake. "We'll dip out the water and hand the
buckets down the line to the A Canal where they'll
be emptied. We want to draw attention to what's
happened here, to tell the American people that
what happened to us can happen to them."
As the farmers see it, it's just a matter of
time. Hence the rally's simple message: "Us now,
The hand-delivered water will be the only water
the canal receives for many months, if ever.
Normally at this time of year it would be near
brimful, as would be the hundreds of miles of
secondary canals. Farmers would be in the fields
planting their crops under clear skies unclouded
by dust. Storeowners would be selling supplies and
equipment. Waterfowl would be nesting near the
canals and in the two wildlife refuges in the
That's how it's been for nearly 100 years --
even when there's been a drought, as there is this
But last month, two federal judges, in a set of
related rulings, delivered a double-whammy that
stopped this scenario, at least through this year
and perhaps longer.
assistant manager, Tulelake Irrigation
District, stands in empty irrigation ditch.
Despite the fact that Upper Klamath Lake is
full, on Apr. 4, U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown
Armstrong of Oakland, Calif., barred the U.S.
Bureau of Reclamation from supplying water to the
1,400 farmers and over 6,000 other water-users
that depend on the Klamath River Project. This
vast network of canals was built in stages during
the first decades of the last century by the
federal government to carry water through a
240,000-acre area that straddles the
Oregon-California line, turning what had been
marshland and two large shallow lakes into farms
Armstrong ruled that the bureau, the agency
responsible for delivering the water, "committed a
substantial procedural violation of the
Endangered Species Act" by operating the
Klamath Project last year "without completing a
biological assessment of the likely impact of that
plan on the threatened coho salmon," and without
consulting with the National Marine Fisheries
Service, which the act requires.
Until the bureau comes up with a plan for
protecting the salmon, and until that plan is
approved, nobody will receive any water -- not the
farmers, nor thousands of other water-users, not
even the national wildlife refuges in the area.
The judge's ruling was in response to a request
for an injunction against water delivery brought
by a coalition of seven environmental groups:
Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations,
Klamath Forest Alliance, Institute for
Fisheries Resources, Northcoast Environmental
Golden Gate Audubon, and the
Resources Council. They were represented by
EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund, formerly the
Sierra Club Legal Defense Club.
The plaintiffs applauded
Armstrong's decision. "For the first time,
coho and other salmon in the Klamath River, as
well as coastal and river communities that depend
on salmon, will not be sacrificed in order to make
full deliveries to Upper Klamath Basin
irrigators," Felice Pace, chair of the Klamath
Forest Alliance, told the Klamath Falls Herald and
News. "After years of struggle, we have finally
achieved some balance," he said.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Glen
Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific
Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, lead
plaintiff in the suit, said he feared that
political pressure was being exercised "at the
highest levels" to negate the force of the judge's
"They're trying to force the agencies to back
away from what science requires and cut a deal
where irrigators get some water," he said.
If any deal-cutting was attempted, it wasn't
successful. Armstrong's ruling hit the area like a
sledgehammer, sending shock waves through the
three affected counties: Modoc and Siskiyou
counties in northern California, and Klamath
County in southern Oregon.
"Farmers and ranchers are severely impacted by
the decision," said Marcia Armstrong, executive
director of the Siskiyou County Farm Bureau and
Siskiyou County Cattlemen's Association. "Without
water, farmers can't grow crops, not even cover
crops. They can't do business and they have no
livelihood. Ranchers in the project area are
having to liquidate their stock -- there's no feed
or water for them. The ranchers could lose
As the situation worsens, workers look for
employment elsewhere; assessors of the affected
counties have notified the fire, park and other
taxing districts to expect a drop in revenues in
the wake of plummeting property values; school
districts worry about a loss of students. And
farmers and ranchers wonder how they'll make it
through this year and beyond.
No water, no bank loan
Jeff Boyd, 34, a third-generation farmer in
Tulelake, Calif., and a member of the board of
directors of the Klamath Growers Association, was
among the first casualties. A married man with
three children not yet in their teens, Boyd was
caught more-or-less by surprise by the judge's
decision. He'd expected some kind of cutback on
water, but not a total shut-off. On Apr. 4 he had
talked with his local lending institution, which
told him to come back in a week to sign the papers
as his loan to run the 1,000-acre family farm --
which he farms with his father -- would be funded.
Most farmers, Boyd explained, work off an
annual operating loan: "You operate on the
borrowed money, and at the end of the year you pay
back the loan plus the interest, and if you have
anything left, that's your income for the year.
But no water puts the brakes on everything. You
don't get your financing, you don't get to raise
your crops, and your income stream dries up."
This is exactly what happened to Boyd. On Apr.
6, two days after his chat with his banker, the
Bureau of Reclamation sent word to the farmers and
their lending institutions that there would be no
water this year. None. Not one drop. All the water
in the reservoir would flow down the Klamath River
to benefit the coho salmon. Well, not all. An
enormous quantity must remain to keep the level of
Upper Klamath Lake a foot or so higher-than-usual
for the Lost River sucker fish and the short-nosed
sucker fish, two species that live in the lake,
and which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
listed as endangered in 1988. Boyd's loan
application took a direct hit.
"My banker called the following Monday [Apr.
9], and said, 'We'd better put this on hold,'"
Boyd recalled. "And that's where it stands. My
loan wasn't denied, just put on hold. Basically,
if I don't get that loan, I don't operate and I
don't have an income for the year."
Boyd and his father raise small grains, like
wheat and barley, potatoes, and peppermint, which
is harvested for its oil. "Altogether we raise 800
acres of grain, 250 acres of potatoes and 70 acres
of mint," he said. "That's not overly huge. Farms
in the San Joachin Valley are thousands of acres.
Here in Tulelake we're still small family farms,
and I'm involved in the everyday business, not
only the business, but the labor, and my father is
Were the water flowing, their grain crops would
be already in the ground and they'd be getting
ready to plant potatoes. Instead, Boyd is thinking
he should try planting some kind of cover crop
just to keep down the dust that's blanketing the
area and causing car accidents.
"Last week [Apr. 16] we had a tremendous wind
storm," he said. "We always get some spring dust,
but this was worse than it needed to be because
some of the fields would have already been worked
and watered and maybe planted. But during this
storm there was an eight-car pileup north of
Klamath Falls because of the dust. Fortunately, no
one was killed."
The dust has become so bad that some farmers
have set up snow-fences -- wire and slat fences
designed to hold back drifting snow.
testimonial: Snow-fence keeps dust from road.
Boyd said it's not unlikely that the area
becomes a dust bowl, a concern shared by many, in
particular agencies like the Klamath Soil and
Water Conservation District, which is charged with
working with farmers to control erosion. In a
sharply worded press release, Rick Woodley,
manager of the district, blasted the decision of
the Bureau of Reclamation to withhold water.
"This decision by the Bureau of Reclamation has
placed the Klamath Basin at extreme risk for soil
erosion, and the effects from wind-driven soil
particles in the air. ... Farmers, ranchers and
other landowners, both public and private in this
basin having been putting in monumental efforts
for the implementation of the Clean Water Act in
this watershed and its rivers and streams. ... As
we begin to see our best efforts for clean water
blow away, and loose, uncovered soil flow into the
very water we are trying to improve, one is left
to wonder how the decision to cut off the supply
of water to the farmland is a good one."
Woodley termed the decision "a slap in the face
to the very people who worked so hard to improve
water quality." He predicts a series of dust
storms throughout the summer. More specifically,
the Soil Conservation Service foresees a loss of
410,000 tons of topsoil.
A 'snowball effect'
Boyd and the farmers aren't the only
casualties. Support businesses, too, are caught in
the wringer, businesses like that of his uncle,
who sells farm equipment.
Boyd describes the resulting "snowball effect":
"I buy a lot of seeds and fertilizers. If I don't
get a loan because I'm not going to get water,
then I don't need to buy seeds and fertilizer, and
those businesses go away. My uncle's equipment
dealership, for example. If nobody can farm,
nobody needs to buy any equipment. My uncle must
decide what to do: Lay people off? Close the
doors? He has 15 to 18 people working for him.
Also, we employ seasonal employees every year,
migrant workers. They travel the state and work in
different places. They're Hispanic. Tulelake has a
quite large, permanent Hispanic population, and
they depend on work in the farming industry. They
aren't illegal immigrants. They've bought homes
here, they have mortgages, they're an integral
part of the community. If I don't raise my crops,
if other farmers don't raise crops, these people
will go somewhere else to work."
Then there are the schools. "We have a small
school district, and the school people are worried
about the loss of students," said Boyd. "The state
funds the school district based on average daily
attendance, so if we lose many kids, we lose
teachers. It's an 'ag-based' economy, and if
agriculture goes away, it takes the whole
community away. It's a snowball effect."
Juan Carlos Hernandez, 13-years-old and a 4-H
member, echoed Boyd's concerns: "It's hurting
everyone, even people who are not in farming, like
the store workers. They sell stuff to the farmers,
but the farmers won't be buying anything. They'll
be losing their jobs. Everybody's going to be
Juan Carlos, who lives with his parents in
Tulelake, Calif., explained how his own 4-H
chapter is being rolled in the snowball effect.
The young people raise pigs that are sold at
auctions. Normally, these are a successful
venture, but not now.
"We're having a problem with the auctions
because not very many people are going to want to
buy the pigs," he said. "If people are out of
work, they aren't going to be able to buy the
Across the state line in Merrill, Ore., Steve
and Nancy Kandra ponder their future. The Kandras
grow alfalfa and hay on 1,000 acres Steve's
grandfather farmed. Since alfalfa is a perennial
crop, they figure they might get at least one crop
"Usually we'd get three or four crops -- we
call them 'cuttings -- in a normal summer," Mrs.
Kandra explained. "But they'll not live through
another year without water. So all that investment
is gone, and we'll have to start over."
Steve Kandra by
She and her husband consider themselves
relatively lucky because they rely on perennials.
The row-crop farmers, who plant potatoes, onions
and horseradish are the hardest hit. If their
crops were not in the ground by early May, with a
good supply of water assured, there will be no
At 48-years-old and with their children grown,
Kandra has more time for community affairs, and he
focuses his efforts on helping solve problems
relating to water allocation and habitat
restoration. He is president of the Klamath
Irrigation District, a charter member of the
Klamath Basin Ecosystem Foundation and a charter
member of the
Klamath Basin Working Group. The latter
organization, a 30-member body of the various
community interests -- farming, environmental,
tribal and so on -- was established by former
Democratic Sen. Mark Hatfield in 1994, during a
period of severe drought. The group meets
regularly to work on ecosystem restoration plans
and deal with issues such as the ones they're
facing now. The Working Group is responsible for
"a tremendous amount of restoration" in the
Klamath Basin, says Kandra.
Kandra has harsh words for the environmental
groups that sued the Bureau of Reclamation and
precipitated Armstrong's decision -- in particular
the Oregon Natural Resources Council and Klamath
Forest Alliance, who chose to use the courts
rather than the mediation table to achieve their
"We've been plodding along, trying to work out
compromises," Kandra said. "Tens of thousands of
acres that were productive farmland have been
turned back into wetlands or put in some kind of
"And what was our reward for that?" he asks.
"They took the rest of the water away. It's not
like we haven't been trying. We have. But some
people, some groups, just haven't been at the
table -- by their choice. They were invited, but
chose to walk away. It was a little easier for
them to sue the federal government, rather than
work with us. Instead of putting their dollars and
their time into helping us facilitate restoration,
they chose to put their dollars into harassment
and legal action. Groups like the ONRC and Klamath
Forest Alliance are two of the entities that did
The farmers of the project have not stood idly
by, watching everything they and their fathers and
grandfathers worked for blow away in the wind. In
late April, the Klamath Water Users Association,
the Tulelake Irrigation District, the Klamath
Irrigation District and farmers Steve Kandra and
David Cacka sought a preliminary injunction
requiring the bureau to honor its contracts and
deliver their water.
The same groups that had sought the original
injunction in Armstrong's court, weighed in as
intervenors on the side of the Bureau of
"My family has been here a long, long time,"
said Kandra, explaining his motive for
involvement. "I'm a farmer and involved in
community activities, so it just seemed
appropriate to step up and be one of the people
who carries this issue forward."
On Monday, Apr. 30, U.S. District Judge Ann
Aiken of Eugene, Ore., in a 37-page ruling,
rejected their request and upheld the bureau's
decision to reserve the water in Upper Klamath
Lake and the Klamath River for fish, rather than
delivering it to the farmers in the project.
Aiken ruled that under the Administrative
Procedures Act, an agency decision must be upheld
unless it is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of
discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with
law," and the judge didn't believe cutting off
water to the farmers was any of those things.
"Given the high priority the law places on
species threatened with extinction, I cannot find
that the balance of hardship tips sharply in the
plaintiffs' favor," Aiken wrote.
"While the court sympathizes with plaintiffs
and their plight, I am bound by oath to uphold the
law. The law requires the protection of suckers
and salmon as endangered species and as tribal
trust resources, even if plaintiffs disagree with
the manner in which the fish are protected or
believe that they inequitably bear the burden of
Tessa Steubli, executive director of the
Klamath Water Users Association, appraised the
ruling. "She [Judge Aiken] addressed each of our
arguments, but the bottom line is that she must
uphold the law, and she said that under the law
endangered species are more important than any
type of economic harm that could come to human
beings. Therefore, the suckers get the water."
Debra Crisp, executive director of the Tulelake
Growers Association, said she was "extremely
disappointed" by the decision. "I doubt had the
judge taken the time to review all the briefs and
declarations she would have ruled as she did,"
said Crisp. "The information that was submitted
was overwhelmingly in favor of the Klamath
Project. I was hoping the judge would make a
"Zero water is not a reasonable decision,
especially when the lake is full," Crisp added.
"Nobody is denying that there is a drought here,
and nobody is denying that fish need water. But
they don't need all the water. The
socio-economic impact and the environmental damage
are going to be devastating."
And unnecessary, according to Prof. Alex Horne,
of the Civil and Environmental Engineering
Department of the University of California,
Berkeley, a world-renowned scientist in the field
of limnology -- the study of freshwater bodies:
ponds, lakes and rivers. Prof. Horne was called in
as a consultant by the Klamath Water Users
"The solution seemed to me that the farmers
probably could have some water this year,
especially as they are farming old wetlands,"
Horne explained. "The area is more like the
[Sacramento River] delta rather than a desert.
These farmers live in places that were wetlands
and where there was a lake. So it's not like
they're diverting water into the high desert in
Arizona where there never were any wetlands."
"A farm uses about the same amount of water as
a wetland on the same area," he continued. "Now
you might prefer to have a wetland rather than a
farm, but strictly from a water point of view it
makes no difference; they both use a lot of water,
so naturally some of that water would have gone
down there to keep those wetlands alive in the old
"That's why it seems to me that in the
emergency we had, we could have given the farmers
water, given the fish upstream and downstream
water, and the water quality could have been
preserved by adding some oxygen to the lake,
particularly in the deep area," he said.
Horne said he was disappointed to read in the
news that the farmers weren't going to get their
water, "but you know, Endangered Species Act is a
very great, blunt club. There's not much
sophistication about it yet, and I think we need a
lot more sophistication in the way we do things."
But though bludgeoned with that "great, blunt
club," the farmers are somehow managing to hold
firm. Reg LeQuieu, assessor for Klamath County,
Ore., reports that there have been no desperation
sales of farms, at least not in his county.
"People are holding pretty tight, and we're hoping
the farmers hang tough, at least for a while and
not panic," he said.
"But some of them are in a position where it's
almost like they're waiting for their own
execution. They're in dire straits. And it's
Steve Kandra is among those not about to call
it quits. "What they're hoping is that we'll dry
up and blow away, but what they've done is develop
a lot of stubborn resolve in a lot of people," he
Asked if this were the end of the line: "Heck
no, this is just the beginning," he answered
confidently. "All the judge did was rule on a
preliminary injunction, we tried to get the
head-gate open so we can get water to the project.
But there's going to be accountability. People are
going to be made accountable. They're going to be
exposed, they're going to be made well known.
We're going to work these issues out, we've got
to. But it will be a long haul," he added.