A report, disputed by farmers, finds that the economy
felt a minimal effect when water was withheld in 2001 to save imperiled
By Eric Bailey, Los Angelels Times Staff Writer, January 3, 2002
Back in the parched year of 2001, the water-starved farmers of the Klamath
Basin embraced what seemed a common-sense bit of conventional wisdom.
Everyone said that steep cuts that year in irrigation water, which for
generations had turned the fertile region into an agricultural oasis each
spring, were hitting hard in the pocketbook. By most accounts, the local
economy suffered a loss topping $250 million.
But an exhaustive study of the Klamath crisis has concluded the losses
weren't nearly so severe. In fact, the region might even have turned a
profit in a year dubbed a disaster.
The 400-page report produced by researchers at Oregon State University and
UC Davis estimates that the Klamath Basin, which straddles the
Oregon-California border, experienced at worst a loss of $11 million and
at best reaped $10 million in gains.
Environmentalists have jumped on that finding as proof of their long-held
belief that the 2001 crisis was overblown by the 1,400 farmers who grow
potatoes, onions, alfalfa and other crops across the basin's 235,000
But farmers say their pain was indeed genuine and that the economic study,
produced by a computer model, failed to reflect the real world.
"Seeing what happened around here, there's no way anyone is going to
accept the notion that 2001 was a wash," said Dan Keppen, Klamath Water
Users Assn. executive director. "These findings reflect the incredible
disconnect between folks in an academic setting and those who actually saw
what occurred on the ground."
The Klamath crisis erupted after a dry winter prompted federal officials
to cut off irrigation diversions so more water was available for two
species of endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and coho salmon in
the river downstream.
Despite two years of fighting since the crisis erupted, little headway has
been made to resolve differences between farmers and a coalition of
environmentalists, fishermen and Native American tribes.
Authors of the report acknowledge that the 2001 growing season saw
considerable pain in the region. More than half the basin was left dry as
irrigation flows were reduced to help the fish, they determined.
But the flood of federal and state assistance that poured into the Klamath
region helped offset steep losses. The report estimated that net crop
revenue dropped between $27 million and $46 million, while between $35
million and $37 million in government aid went into the pockets of
The report's authors note that their estimate did not figure in long-term
costs, such as depressed land values and agricultural contracts canceled
because of the water shortage. They also said that the real-world costs of
the water cutback didn't evaporate, but rather were shifted from the backs
of the farmers to the wallets of taxpayers.
Meanwhile, a separate study of the Klamath crisis by the Wilderness
Society determined that the bulk of the farm subsidies during 2001 went to
a small percentage of farmers.
The study determined that just 10 farm families in the basin collected
nearly 20% of the government subsidy money, with one pair of brothers
reaping nearly $900,000. Many of those families helped lead the fight for
increased bail-out money, said Pete Rafle of the Wilderness Society.
"Those who had the best connections got the most money."
In addition, farmers who leased agricultural land in federal wildlife
refuges in the basin reaped a disproportionate share, Rafle said. The 39
farm families that lease refuge land received nearly a third of the
federal funding distributed in 2001, according to the Wilderness Society
Environmentalists would like to see farming halted on those refuge lands,
which each year serve as habitat for the biggest concentration of
migratory birds commuting on the Pacific Flyway. The subsidy money granted
refuge farmers in 2001 makes it only tougher to push them off, Rafle said.
"These people are profiting handsomely, so they have even more incentive
to stick it out."
Farmers on the refuge lands, considered the most fertile agricultural turf
in the entire basin, have long maintained that they suffered considerably
in 2001 and the government money only began to blunt the pain. They
contend that farming has a place on the refuges because crops serve as
food for migratory birds.