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.

Mr. Getler

The opening paragraph of July 28, 2004's editorial on Page A18, titled "The Basin and the Bay", is deeply flawed, and almost entirely factually incorrect. I would expect that your editorial staff would be much more diligent in researching their material prior to penning their editorials.

The paragraph reads...

"IN 2002, DROUGHT led farmers in the Klamath River Basin in Oregon and Northern California to divert river water to their fields. Tens of thousands of coho salmon and other endangered fish died as a result. In 2003, a federal court ruled that river water could no longer be diverted, since doing so violated the Endangered Species Act. The result, in 2004, was mass bankruptcy, as farmers' livelihoods literally dried up."

The one part that is correct is the bit about the Klamath River Basin being located in Oregon and Northern California.

The Klamath Project was initiated by the federal government in the early 1900s specifically to attract farming families to the Klamath Basin to establish homestead farms. Over the years the farmers paid for the project, and finished completely repaying the government for the project infrastructure many years ago...a noteworthy feat, since most investment money for federal infrastructure projects is never fully repaid to the federal treasury.

The federal government denied water deliveries to the farmers that get their annual irrigation water right in 2001 under ESA requirements. The NSF later found that this shutoff was not warranted.

Water was delivered to the farms in 2002, and this was not done as a result of drought as the editorial suggests. Water has been routinely delivered to the farms and wildlife refuges annually as a deeded right of the landowners for nearly a century.

The fish kill mentioned took place some 200 miles from the Klamath Basin, in the region around the mouth of the Trinity River. These were determined to be mostly fish returning to the Trinity River for spawning. Trinity River water is largely (up to 90% in many years) diverted southward into California for agricultural and urban residential and industrial use. These fish did not die as a result of any of the routine annual water uses in the Klamath Basin.

I am not aware that any court ruled in 2003 that water could no longer be used for irrigation. We are talking water rights here, and many of the Basin's farms have some of the most senior water rights possible. Water was delivered for the farms and wildlife refuges in 2003, and is being delivered now in 2004. Although there are those who would like to see all water deliveries to the farms stopped, they have not been able to make that happen in any year but 2001. That delivery stoppage also prevented water being delivered to the wildlife refuges, placing more than 450 wildlife species, some of which are endangered in their own right, under extreme survival stress.

Although the administrative struggles over water have resulted in some bankruptcies in the Klamath Basin region, there has been no mass bankruptcy of farmers in 2004.

Were I in your position as the Washington Post's ombudsman, I would be picking up the phone at about this point and requesting a meeting with whoever penned this editorial. It would be most interesting to learn where the author(s) came up with the "facts" presented to your reading public. They have not served the public or your stockholders very well with the first paragraph of the editorial.

You might want to keep your finger off the speed dial for a moment or two longer, though, as I ask you to consider the following...

Where the editorial says:

"...the largest sources of pollution -- nutrient runoff from some 12,000 farms in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania, as well as from cities -- have hardly been tackled. That's because to do so would be complicated and expensive, and might put at risk the income of the region's farmers."

...I think I'd ask the worthy author(s) to prove to you that a significant portion of the nutrient runoff is coming from farms. Farmers are working under some of the most stringent economic and regulatory limitations imaginable. Family farms, in particular, tend to be land-rich and cash-poor. Most farmers are not going to put any more fertilizer on their fields than absolutely necessary, and are going to do everything in their power to prevent any of it moving away from the crop being fertilized. They simply cannot afford to waste any of those nutrients by allowing them to run off the fields.

I'd be more inclined to focus on the amount of fertilizers poured on to suburban lawns and gardens, often only to be almost immediately washed down storm drains when those same lawns and gardens are overwatered the same day. Hundreds of thousands of homes, owned by people who often seem to think that if a little fertilizer works well, more fertilizer ought to work even better, can place a tremendous amount of nutrient loading into the region's waterways. Golf courses also have a tendency to use more fertilizer and water than they need to. Even when overwatering is not an issue, rainstorms such as those recently experienced around the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays will wash a lot of unused nutrients straight into the estuaries and bays.

To say,

"In the Klamath Basin, there is no middle road: Either the farmers move away, or the fish die."

...is to demonstrate complete nearly complete ignorance of the issues facing either the agricultural or natural communities. There is a balance, and that balance has been maintained quite well for nearly a hundred years, up until the recent lawsuit flinging brought about by a coalition of wilderness and environmental advocacy groups whose agendas involved severely curtailing farming throughout the Klamath Basin region.

The actual fish in question are two species of suckers that are on the endangered species list. Whether their actual numbers warrant continued ESA protection or not is open to question and up for review.

Your author's assertion that most farmers receive taxpayer-funded subsidies is also very much open to your review. Most of those 12,000 farms referred to in your region are family farms, and very, very few family farms qualify for any form of subsidies. (I would be interested in knowing exactly what percentage of those 12,000 farms are receiving subsidies, and to what degree those subsidies actually support the agricultural activities on those farms.) The lion's share of that money goes to corporations and extremely large landowners, and never sees the light of day in the mid-Atlantic states or the Klamath Basin. (You might be interested in learning which Senators and other prominent individuals and corporations rake in farm subsidy cash, though...it would make a great story...)

The harder political solution to nutrient pollution comes with the recognition that such a great portion of it comes from the individual homeowner level. While the agricultural community makes an easy target (you can see the farms easily, but there are relatively few voters who are going to be directly impacted by draconian legislation and regulation), large numbers of homeowners are more painful to land on. Yet most of the Chesapeake Bay's nutrient overload is likely hauled out the Home Depot doors and loaded into a parking lot full of cars, minivans, and SUVs...not into the farmers' mud-spattered pick-ups that have seen better days.

Please keep me advised as to what you learn about how so much groundless assertion and so little factual information in a single piece managed to make it into publication on the Washington Post's editorial page.

Thank you very much for your time and kind attention.

Norman MacLeod




Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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