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Klamath: 10 Years Later - 1

Northwest Agriculture Remains Divided on Water Resources

Todd Neeley DTN Staff Reporter

Gary 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 Basin.

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 granted.

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."


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 Perspectives Inc.

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.


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 species.

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 been ineffective.

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 todd.neeley@telventdtn.com


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