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Klamath Basin farmers, communities reel at cutoff of irrigation water in favor of endangered fish
By Hal Bernton Seattle Times staff reporter
DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES Tulelake farmer John Anderson, with daughters Abby, 8, left, and Kathryn, 9, invested $150,000 in 150 acres of mint now lost to the water cutoff. He's hoping for a federally funded buyout. TULELAKE, Calif. - Instead of potatoes and mint, many of the fields here sprout weeds and pointed signs: "No Water. No Farms. No Food."
"Federally Created Disaster Area."
In the Klamath Basin along Oregon's border with California, the feds have done what once was unthinkable: In a drought-year effort to protect endangered and threatened fish, the Bureau of Reclamation shut off 80 percent of the irrigation water that flows to some 1,200 farms.
The cutoff has hit with sledgehammer force in small farm communities sagging from years of low crop prices, and residents feel betrayed.
"Klamath Basin people are the backbone of America, and their backs are broken by their own government," said Robert Gasser, owner of a fertilizer company in Merrill, Ore., at a congressional hearing last month.
The cutoff is one of the most severe fish-conservation actions ever taken against Pacific Northwest farmers.
The Klamath Basin once was a showcase for the gritty homesteading of drained, diked marshlands.
But competition for water has turned into a clash of values, and the Klamath has become a stewpot for the resource conflicts flaring across the West. Indian tribes assert treaty rights to water and healthy wildlife populations. Downstream commercial fishermen press for restoration of salmon runs. Conservationists want to convert more farmland back to marshes to help heal what they view as "the Everglades of the West."
Tensions run so high that some farmers have received anonymous threats for daring to suggest a compromise with environmentalists. Tribe members say they are treated coolly by some merchants in farm towns.
"We have told our people to hold their heads high, and not get dragged into anything," said tribal chairman Allen Foreman. "And I'm real proud of how they're doing."
This summer's crisis is partly a testament to the severity of the drought's grip on the basin, where the winter snowpack measured just 21 percent of normal - the biggest deficit anywhere in the Pacific Northwest.
But it also results from biological opinions, released earlier this year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, that require more water for two species of endangered sucker fish and a threatened river run of coho salmon. These requirements are expected to trigger federal irrigation shortfalls as much as seven out of every 10 years, according to some estimates.
Cutbacks of this frequency and magnitude are unlikely at other Northwest reclamation projects, where strains between fish and irrigation flows have been deemed less severe.
But federal court rulings have made it clear: In the battle for scarce water, protected wildlife trump Bureau of Reclamation irrigation.
The turmoil in the Klamath is being tracked throughout the Northwest. In Washington's Yakima Basin, bureau officials soon will be expected to provide more water for listed populations of bullhead trout and steelhead.
"When a federal biological opinion says I have to do something, that's what I have to do," said David Murillo, Yakima Field Office manager for a federal project that delivers water to nearly 500,000 acres of Washington farms.
The Klamath cutoff was announced April 6 - a day farmers now call "Black Friday." Since then, farmers have scrambled to plant cover crops to keep parched soils from blowing away. Some have dug new wells into the aquifer. A few flouted the federal order by sticking pumps into a channel funneling water to protected fish.
But there will be no replacement water for most crops. Losses to irrigators and the businesses that depend on them could top $150 million across three counties. Without federal aid, the winter could bring a slew of bankruptcies.
Environmentalists and tribe officials say it's a time of reckoning in a basin degraded by decades of logging, cattle grazing and draining of marshlands, ranches and farms. They say there just isn't enough water to serve competing demands of fish, farmers and federal wildlife refuges.
That assessment of scarcity is shared by the Bush Administration official now assigned to help watchdog the Klamath.
"I think that any solution in the Klamath has to recognize that there is not enough water," said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, deputy chief of staff to Interior Secretary Gail Norton.
The Klamath Bureau of Reclamation project, launched in 1905, taps into shallow lakes. The largest, the nutrient-rich Upper Klamath, is 35 miles long but averages only 7 feet deep. It still holds trophy trout but once sustained a much greater diversity of aquatic life, including large populations of three species of bony but edible sucker fish. These were harvested first by Klamath Indians and other tribes, then by early settlers.
The lake drained into the Klamath River, which historically boasted the region's third-largest runs of coho.
The project diverted lake water through a network of 185 miles of irrigation canals to more than 200,000 acres of farmland largely reclaimed from marshes.
Most of the runoff from irrigated fields ends up in the Lower Klamath Federal Wildlife Refuge. More than a million migrating birds use it as a stopover along the Pacific Flyway. And it is the biggest wintering ground for bald eagles in the lower 48 states.
Without farm runoff, the refuge is stressed. Refuge officials often water 22,000 acres of marshlands during the critical fall migration. This year, they expect to provide for only about 2,000 acres.
Already, much of the refuge is dry, filled with grasses and cracked mud bottoms. Mallards, orange-beaked, black-winged pelicans and other birds congregate in what shrunken wetlands remain. Even those lack fresh inflows, so they are more stagnant than in years past, and thick with algae.
With more birds crowding into smaller spaces, wildlife officials say the risk of diseases, such as botulism and avian cholera, increases.
"We're doing everything we can to conserve our water, but we're going to end up mostly dry," said Phil Norton, manager of the Lower Klamath and three other basin wildlife refuges. "It's a pretty miserable situation."
Environmentalists have filed a notice of intent to sue in an attempt to force the Bureau of Reclamation to crank down still further on irrigation and send some water to the refuge.
Klamath farmers are united in their opposition to the federal water cutoffs. But the burden of those cuts has not been equally shared.
Rationing has largely targeted farmers tied into federal irrigation projects. That's because the Endangered Species Act is most powerful in curbing flows through federally controlled systems.
But roughly half the basin's irrigated acreage lies outside Bureau of Reclamation reach. Some farms and ranches use large amounts of water to produce pasture crops for cattle that graze in the higher elevations north of Upper Klamath Lake. Since these farms rely on private water systems, they have yet to face widespread rationing.
Among the farmers tied to the federal project, the debate about how to respond to water cutoffs can be bitter.
Many blame the federal Endangered Species Act and want to launch a national crusade to amend it in two key ways. The act should require more review of federal scientists who issue biological opinions, they say, and should allow more flexibility to balance the needs of listed species, other wildlife and human beings.
They have staunch allies among western Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
"We need to amend the Endangered Species Act. That's the message we need to get out here today," Hastings said at the congressional hearing in Klamath Falls, Ore.
But others think amending the act may be impossible in a divided Congress. They are tired of low crop prices and weary from years of clashes over water.
"We've gotten to the point that we say enough of the fighting," said John Anderson, 49, who raises cattle, grain and mint east of Tule Lake. "Let's see if we can find some common ground, something that will work for everyone."
In recent months, Anderson has met with Andy Kerr, an environmental veteran of the spotted-owl wars who has taken up the cause of the Klamath. The two have helped forge a proposal for a federally funded plan that would allow farmers to voluntarily sell land and irrigation rights.
Environmentalists also want to buy out 22,000 acres of federal leases that allow farming inside the refuges.
"This joint proposal is ecologically rational - socially just and politically pragmatic," Kerr testified at the Klamath Falls hearing. "The conservation community will use all of its power of persuasion and political influence to see it enacted into law."
For his efforts, Anderson has been branded a traitor by some farmers, and says he has received anonymous phone threats. Anderson was not invited to testify at the House hearing. And an ally supporting the plan, Keith Buckingham, was asked to resign as president of the Tule Lake Growers Association.
Buckingham left his native Tulelake to build houses at Lake Tahoe, but eventually returned to the family farm. He's convinced change is coming, and is philosophical about his ouster.
"It seems like I brought up something that was deemed so evil it doesn't even merit consideration," he said.
The new president of the growers association is Marty Macy, another native of Tulelake who left for a career in the Marine Corps and then returned.
Macy said a federal buyout would weaken the farm communities. And he was angered by Buckingham's public remarks that many older basin landowners would be willing to sell.
"You can not make blatantly disrespectful statements like that," Macy said.
In the three months since Black Friday, dust storms have piled parched soil into dry irrigation ditches. Some fields remain bare or covered with straw stubble or weeds.
But barley and other cover crops are greening some land. And farmers are drilling wells to try to keep a portion of these grain crops - and a smattering of high-value potato and mint fields - alive for a modest harvest.
Last week, for the first time in months, the skies clouded up and drizzle fell for several days. But the summer is still young. The hottest weather is yet to come.
Hal Bernton can be reached at 206-464-2581 or email@example.com.
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