Klamath: 10 Years Later - 1
Northwest Agriculture Remains Divided on Water
Todd Neeley DTN Staff Reporter
Wright, of Tulelake, Calif., said he never thought much about
water until water was cut from his fields in 2001 to save more
for three species of fish. (DTN photo by Todd Neeley)
TULELAKE, Calif. (DTN) -- Gary Wright drives a bumpy trail on
his 5,600-acre northern California ranch in the southern Klamath
His face is reddened from a chilly, damp spring day, but he
welcomes the rain this year.
Farmers and ranchers in the region no longer take water for
In 2001, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation shut off irrigator
access to the Upper Klamath Lake in the Klamath Irrigation
Project of southern Oregon and northern California. The action
was to protect three endangered fish species.
As a result of a court-ordered enforcement of the Endangered
Species Act, hundreds of farmers were left without water in a
severe drought and helplessly watched their crops wither and
die. Farmers lost money and farms, stress took its toll, and
they rallied against a perception that agriculture is unwanted
in the region.
"I had big money lost in wells that weren't ready to go on
time," said Wright, of Tulelake, Calif. "Eighty acres of alfalfa
I lost. It was a total cutoff, and since then it's always been a
month-to-month survival during irrigation."
KLAMATH BASIN IS GROUND ZERO
Local farmers and legal experts say the Klamath Basin is ground
zero for the catastrophic effects of the ESA. Environmental
lawsuits have led to a regulatory mess in the basin.
Hundreds of farmers lost money and property, putting a face on
ESA devastation. Producers who lived through turmoil say their
story should serve as a warning to farmers everywhere -- be
prepared, get organized and stay politically active.
"It was the first example I remember where the ESA was used to
turn off contract water to the farming community for the purpose
of dedicating it to endangered species," said Robin Rivett,
president of the Pacific Legal Foundation and attorney for some
interests in the basin.
Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance in
Oregon, said the Klamath case aroused the farm community.
"Most folks in rural communities that were built on reclamation
water projects simply cannot fathom that federal fisheries
agencies can wield the type of power that can bring productive
agriculture to a screeching halt," he said.
About 1,400 farmers lost approximately $200 million from the
shutoff, according to a 2003 article written by researcher
Michael S. Coffman, Ph.D. and president of Environmental
An estimated 22,000 acres went idle and total crop acreage in
Klamath County, Ore., dropped from about 137,900 in 2000 to
82,900 in 2001, according to an Oregon State extension study.
Those crops include hay, barley, wheat, potatoes, oats, mint and
sugar beets. Total crop values dropped from about $54.8 million
in 2000 to about $31.5 million in 2001, the study said.
The OSU study said there was a spike in requested services for
mental health crisis screening, pre-commitment investigations
and in the number of people treated for depression in Klamath
Water Reclamation project communities in 2001.
While the decision to place fish as a higher priority than
farmers was devastating to the Klamath area at that time, this
wasn't the region's first go-around with the ESA.
In 1992, the area was declared a critical habitat for the
endangered spotted owl.
Jobs were lost and people hurt.
"The ESA has got to take into consideration economic and human
components," said Greg Addington, executive director of the
Klamath Water Users Association. "People will say it does, but
if it does what it did here in 2001, it's not doing that. It's
just so absolute."
In some ways the Klamath farmers saw pressure building to
support endangered species, but they still were not prepared for
what would happen next.
PRESSURE FROM ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS, DROUGHT
The Ninth Circuit Court declared in 1999 that Klamath project
irrigators' needs were subservient to the ESA. Environmental
groups then sued the bureau for failing to perform biological
assessments on the effect of water diversions on endangered
When drought hit in 2001, before the environmental lawsuit was
even dealt with, federal officials said water levels were
dangerously low for the endangered Coho salmon, the short-nose
sucker fish and the Lost River sucker fish.
A U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on
April 4, 2001 barred irrigation water delivery to the Klamath
project. The water was shut off on April 6, 2001, when the U.S.
Department of Interior announced that no irrigation water would
be available and it was shut down.
The shutoff brought national attention to the perils of the ESA.
In 2005 and 2007, Congress put forward unsuccessful proposals to
reform the act.
There were questions on how successful the ESA actions were to
protect wildlife and at what price.
With the water shut off to provide more water for the fish in
the Upper Klamath Lake, and a drought then hitting them, project
farmers received just a fraction of what they needed.
Did sacrificing the crops make a difference? There is little
evidence the species are recovering, and the shutoff may have
A National Academy of Sciences report in 2003 said water levels
were not a threat to the fish species.
"Big picture -- it has been pretty disappointing," Addington
said. "I think our view is that national academy report was
vindication that the water shouldn't have been shut off."
The Klamath results opened closer analysis -- and criticism --
of other actions influenced nationally by the ESA.
The Heritage Foundation said in a 2005 study that the ESA
rescued just 10 of the nearly 1,300 listed species. The annual
cost to implement the ESA is at least $3.5 billion, not
including jobs lost, according to a 2004 study by the Property
and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont.
Land-control provisions in the ESA create the biggest problems,
according to a 2007 study by the National Center for Policy
Analysis, http://dld.bz/… (PDF).
Though 78% of species live on private land, the study said ESA
cracks down on otherwise normal land uses in farming, and
landowners receive no compensation for loss of land value,
income or lost use of the land.
Rick Krause, senior director of the Congressional relations for
the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the Klamath case sent
shockwaves across the countryside.
"Klamath became the poster child for all that could go wrong
with ESA and how it impacted rural America," he said.
Wright remembers when he never thought much about water.
"Now, it's about whether you even have water to start with," he
said. "And if you don't have water, you don't have a banker.
It's a different story."
Todd Neeley can be reached at