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.

Salmon Trout Steelhead Magazine, October-November 2004 Issue


(go HERE for response by Barbara Hall, Klamath Bucket Brigade.)
(go HERE for response by Steve Cheyne)


Fish versus Farmers

Page 82 - 91


Written by Don Roberts


The Klamath River water wars have been fought with a barrage of words, including an ongoing preemptive blitz of propaganda and misinformation.


You have to hand it to the agricultural interests in this county, when it comes to water allocation issues, particularly in the Klamath Basin, they’ve controlled not only the agenda but the dialogue surrounding the whole shemozzle.  Although the discord reached a crescendo in July 2000 – when angry farmers, in a fit of civil disobedience, pried open the headgates in an attempt to liberate additional irrigation water – there’s really nothing new about the display of desperation, nor the ruthlessness and vitriol expended in the effort.


The overriding myth the ag industry would have the rest of the world believe is that the controversy on the Klamath boils down to fish versus farms.  This carefully crafted, single-dimensional view is intended to inspire sympathy for the poor, suffering farmer.  The noble plowman.  Tireless tiller of the soil.  The long-nurtured image is that of the strong, independent farmer eking out a living from hardscrabble earth – the implication being:  When it comes to survival, not to mention the laws of the land, how dare anyone elevate the needs of fish over man?


The problem with this image is that it’s a fabrication, an outdated invention cobbled together by government and agribusiness at the turn of the last century.  In 1905 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) began altering the Klamath Basin – a massive project of draining lakes and wetlands and diverting the water to arid reaches – with the intent of creating an arable Eden in the midst of a sere savanna.  In effect, farms were liberally foisted upon an unwilling landscape.  And the BOR was there to nurse the compulsion to cultivate.  Not only did the federal government manufacture a farm community in the desert – a preposterous and unsustainable idea -  but it also created an inexhaustible sense of entitlement (subsidies, subsidies and more subsidies) to placate an agrarian culture gone mad.


The water crisis being wrangled in the courts today is all about facing the reality that a century ago the government promised farmers more reserves than it could deliver without destroying some of the most significant marsh lands, wildlife refuges and wild salmon runs in the nation.  The unvarnished truth is this:  there’s not enough water, even during years of average precipitation, to sustain anywhere near all of the farms in the Klamath Basin.


Bluster and Bumfodder


As an Oregonian editorial (May 1, 2001) proclaimed:  “the Klamath crisis won’t be solved by elected officials who fly into town (Klamath Falls) on borrowed corporate jets and shout about how farmers are more important then endangered sucker fish.  Political hay isn’t a cash crop . . .”


Since suckerfish and salmon can’t talk, agribusiness and pro-agribusiness mouthpieces have all but monopolized the rhetoric on water issues.  Defiant farmers have threatened to battle anything – laws and regulations, for example – and anyone who gets between them and the spigots.  But the larger story here is the complicity of the federal government:  The BOR has steadfastly gone out of its way to provide the philosophy and support enabling the more vocal farmers (clients) to launch a single-minded crusade for full, uncompromising water deliveries.  Because the BOR (with orders from the Beltway) makes the final decision regarding water releases, its farmer-clients are shielded from litigation concerning violations of environmental laws.  Very convenient.  Very cozy.  And very deadly.  As witnessed by the unconscionable and preventable fish kill – 33,000 salmon belly-up – that occurred September 2002 on the lower Klamath River in California.


Despite the umbrella of protection afforded by their incestuous relationship with government, the ag-industry is savvy enough to know that they must unceasingly campaign for the hearts and minds of the rank and file; they must sway both the media and Joe Sixpack, if you will.  They do this by mustering two sphere of myth:  one revolving around research and science, the other trumpeting socio-cultural-economic distinctions.  In both areas it has served the agri-interests to dissemble and obfuscate, whatever means deemed necessary to keep the folklore alive and kicking.


Fractured Fairy Tales


An editorial in the New York Times, posted July 15, 2002, pointedly suggested:  “This is not, as right-wing critics would have us believe, a simple case of farmers vs. fish.  Nor is the Endangered Species Act to blame.  The fundamental problem is that the Klamath Basin is an overstressed ecosystem in which there are too many claimants for too little water – farmers, fish, other wildlife, towns, downstream salmon fishermen whose business has long been declining and Indian tribes whose water claims predate those of the farmers.”


Less than two months later that “overstressed ecosystem” became the scene of the worst fish kill in history.  How did the BOR and the agri-interests of the upper Klamath respond?  No regret.  No shame.  No admission of guilt or culpability.  No attempt to rectify, seek solutions or compromise.  Instead the BOR and the farm lobby ratcheted up the noise, submersing the problem in decibels, while concocting a narrative meant to conceal and cast doubt.  In short, they seized upon an “alternative” science which posed a veritable cabal of assertions, including: 1. No one knows what killed these fish; 2. Increased flows wouldn’t have helped; 3. Water volume issues in the lower Klamath can be attributed to tributaries in Northern California; 4. Scientists have determined the Klamath Irrigation Project (KIP) is not responsible; 5. So far scientists have failed to prove low flows harm salmon.


Although there’s not enough room here to fully address every sham precept inflicted upon an unsuspecting public, those listed above are so egregious as to deserve at least cursory rebuttal.  First, the fish-kill mystery, Assertion no. 1:  Once the death rays from outer space theory had been ruled out, the California Department of Fish and Game conducted a vigilant and scrupulous examination of the scene of the disaster.  After the field data was assembled and autopsies had been performed, biologists were able to determine precisely the cause of death.  For below normal flows concentrated the salmon in the main channel and  as the shallow water reached intolerable temperatures, critically reducing oxygen levels, the severely stressed salmon became susceptible to a flurry of pathogens, particularly a disease known as “gill rot” which destroys the fishes’ respiratory system, causing them to suffocate en mass.  BOR and the ag community, however, chose to adhere to their story of mystical mishap, never mind forensic evidence to the contrary.


The premise (Assertion no. 2) that more water wouldn’t have helped the plight of salmon in the lower Klamath is so patently absurd that even conspiring politicians and bureaucrats could not suppress the impulse to nod nod, wink wink.  As any sixth grader could tell you, increased flows both reduce temperatures and disperse salmon, while also diluting the pesticides, fertilizers and animal wastes (cow s—t) that comprise a fetid soup for aspiring pathogens.


When it’s obvious that such major tributaries as the Trinity, Scott and Shasta (Assertion no. 3) could have provided an emergency transfusion of water, irrigation/utility districts in Northern California have zealously (immorally might be a better term) guarded their own liquid treasure troves, maneuvering the courts to put a lock on reserves in those drainages.  KIP, in the meantime, ducked responsibility by pointing the finger at their brethren in California, claiming that farmers on the lower Klamath were extracting too much water from the river.  The purported turf war raised enough of a ruckus to cause a credible distraction, the perfect ruse to hide behind while KIP and the BOR continued with business as usual.  The sobering fact is BOR oversees the resource and bears the burden of a legal mandate to provide sufficient in-stream flows to ensure the survival of endangered species, notably coho and shortnose suckers.  BOR’s (and the Bush Administration’s) use of artifice and guile to dodge that responsibility underscores their contempt for the law.


Finally, we come to the last subterfuge (Assertions no. 4 and 5):  science or, more accurately, pseudo-science.  Spokesmen for the BOR and the Bush Administration, including a contingent of white-coats on the payroll of the agri-industry, maintained that the historical fish kill on the Klamath was, gee, quite a mystery.  Not only that, but the National Research Council (NRC) – retained by the Bush crew to review existing research which documented the negative impacts of low flows (fish kills, jeopardy of endangered species, juvenile salmon survival, etc.) – concluded that they had come to no conclusions, that, surprise surprise, more research was needed to justify any significant policy shifts.  Naturally, BOR and the Bush team interpreted NRC’s finding to mean “fish don’t need water.”  Stalling and paper shuffling.  Besides being an industry in itself, the call for evermore research has become a heavy-duty political tool wielded to wear down the opposition, outlast the public’s notoriously short memory and ultimately, produce multiple-choice style science.  Using the NRC’s non-conclusion as a kind of transparent Kevlar shield, the Bush/BIR/KIP coalition charged roughshod over solid science in the push to maximize irrigation deliveries to the upper Klamath Basin.


Show  Me The Money


Though the livelihoods of Klamath Basin farmers are no more important than those of other people who rely upon the watershed, the ag-industry lobby and its toady politicians have woven a tapestry of socio-economic myth of such grand scale as to overshadow the debate.  As in the biological/scientific realm, the number and breadth of these myths is so far reaching, it would take an Olympian diatribe to tackle them all.  Therefore, only the most outlandish and devious – and the most likely to garner unjustified sympathy – have been singled out for examination.


Myth:  Klamath Project operators extract only a very small portion of water from the river.


It’s astonishing how many irrigators actually believe their own propaganda (which probably accounts for all the shouting and bulging neck veins).  Reality, however, makes a mockery of the term “very small.”  Studies by independent hydrologists indicate that at certain times of year, particularly during the standard July to October dry-spell, as much as 31% of the Klamath may be impounded for upstream irrigation operations.  Thank about that: almost one-third of an entire river drained off to form a sluice in the desert.


Myth:  The strong, self-reliant farmer stands alone and bears the brunt of nature.


Here’s a partial list of programs brought to the forefront when a drought emergency has been declared:  U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, Rural Development Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Bureau of Reclamation, and Small Business Administration, as well as Oregon’s Emergency Management Division, Watershed Enhancement Board and Water Resources Department.  Doesn’t sound too lonely out there on the Klamath, does it?


Following the drought in 2001, Congress provided $20 million in direct relief to KIP farmers who, due to water cut backs, sustained crop losses.  The total aid package to qualified farmers (fewer enrolled than the hysterical press coverage sought to convey) tallied out to approximately $129 an acre.  Ironically, the true annual return on commercial farms in Klamath County averages out to about $35 an acre, less than one-third the amount paid in disaster relief.  In other words, despite the hue and cry, dry dirt may have proven more lucrative than a bumper crop.


Myth:  Basin farmers should have the say because they paid for the Klamath Irrigation Project.


Actually, you, John Q. Pubic picked up the tab.  The American taxpayer paid – and continues to pay though subsidized irrigation water rates – for the Project.  But that aint all, brother.  There’s more . . . more farm subsidies than you can shake a scythe at.  But the interest-free repayment plan on capital investment for KIP, the Bureau supplies irrigators water at far less than the actual production cost and nothing – that’s right, zero – for its distribution.  Then there’s price supports.  Many of the crops grown in the Klamath Basin are surplus – crops the market doesn’t want or need because of an existing glut.  Simply put, the federal government backfills an overburdened and non-responsive market with price supports.  What a business:  farmers stubbornly grow an undesirable product for a mock market and then we get to pay for it.


And don’t forget the usual array of subsidies and tax breaks for a host of agribusiness expenses, including:  maintenance and operation costs, machinery and equipment, petroleum provisions (fuel, lube, etc.) and siege quantities of chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) with which to inundate the landscape.  The crying shame in all this is that agricultural subsidies disproportionately benefit large landholders.  Corporately owned, industrial style agri-operations reap the rewards of government largesse.  Not, definitely not, the small, independent farmer.


Myth:  Less water committed to KIP will lead to economic disaster in the region.


Pure and total hogwash.  Communities and towns in the Klamath Basin will not collapse and blow away with the tumbleweeds as a result of irrigation cutbacks.  Contrary to publicity generated by the farm lobby, agriculture is no longer the economic driving force in the region.  Retail, manufacturing and wholesale trade – with receipts of $859-, $774- and $300-million/year respectively – are now the dominant industries in Klamath County.  In comparison, the market value of agricultural products totaled $239 million annually.  Whether local grangers like it or not, the regional economy has shifted away from agriculture.  The farm sector now employs just 6% of the workforce, and farm and agricultural services account for only 1% of total personal income in Klamath County.


Keep in mind that the lower Klamath River once sustained a cash-cow salmon fishery upon which coastal communities in Oregon and Northern California depended – a fishery that could conceivably recover if remaining salmon populations are mandated the flows to survive and thrive.  An economic analysis conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 2002, concluded that even in its current ragged and ravaged state, the Klamath and its fishery supports a recreation and tourism industry valued at $800 million/year.  Compare that to upper basin irrigation, valued at a measly $100 million.  The USGS further calculated that over the long haul, restoration of the Klamath River would generate approximately 30 billion more dollars in revenue – thanks to sport and commercial fishing, recreation, and tourism – than continuation of the agri-centric, business-as-usual mode on the Klamath.


Raising Cain


Forget the conceit perpetrated on the public by locals who insist that water issues and related environmental problems are more their concern than anyone else’s.  Although seriously degraded by atrocious management, the Klamath River and tributaries, the Klamath marsh and the complex of wildlife refuges, plus adjoining state and federal lands, belongs to all of us.  Any and all attendant issues are of national, indeed global, concern.


Conventional economics gauge activity in terms of gross domestic product – quantified by the price of goods and services that sell on the open market.  That form of accounting, however, ignores ecosystem services – such as breathable air, potable water, habitat for flora and fauna, flood prevention and species sustenance – which benefits all but costs no one.  The consumption model completely overshadows the ecological basis for evaluating economies.  Not only that, but the true value of preserving habitat (including in-stream flows) gets buried under the political rhetoric of special interests.  Perhaps the time has come when agencies in collusion with special interests should no longer be given the latitude to arrogantly decide which natural resources should suffer and which species should die, so that a few more potatoes can be planted on the playa.


In the meantime, climatologists from the Scripps Institute (among other scientific organizations around the world) have concluded from overarching bodies of evidence that we can fully expect severe multiyear “megadroughts”, including temperature increases of 3 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit in the Northwest by the 2040s and a 59% decline in Cascade snowpacks by 2050.  The fish-killing drought of 2002 – the driest year on record in the past century – was merely a preview of coming attractions.  Clearly, such an overheated scenario portends dire problems for hydropower, fish, irrigation and water reserves throughout the West.  “If you think about this in terms of risk management, it’s time to buy some insurance,” claims Edward Miles of the Climate Impacts Group, University of Washington.  “And the insurance is planning.  It takes 20 years to change a water supply system; so time’s a-wastin’.”


While Band-Aid measure – like “water banks”, bribing farmers to forgo their full irrigation quota and auctioning well-water reserves – may help stave off disaster, the only real solution lies in a long-range plan to quell the clamor for water in the Klamath Basin.  Bob Hunter, staff attorney for WaterWatch of Oregon, observed, “We need the Administration to be behind a serious program to permanently retire (buy-out) water rights in order to bring the demand for water back into balance with what nature can provide.”


Steve Pedery of WaterWatch believes that historical perspective brings clarity to the struggle.  “The interesting thing about the Klamath,” said Pedery, “ is that it’s a river that one supported the third largest salmon run on the West Coast, exceeded by only the Sacramento and the Columbia.  And the steelhead run was equally prolific.  When people think about the Klamath they think about the way it has been for the last 25 or 30 years.  They forget that 50 years ago the Klamath dwarfed the Rogue,” which is now known and regaled worldwide for its scenic splendor and its teeming fishery.


The simple fact is, as flows in the Klamath River diminish, the flow of rhetoric spewing from special interests grows increasingly shrill and voluminous.  Beware the torrent of misinformation, propaganda and distortion.  Ultimately, any question concerning the restoration of the Klamath River to anything resembling its former glory depends upon whether a vocal cadre of farmers raises surplus onions in the desert or we, the public, raises Cain.






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

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