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KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — Outraged at the impending destruction of an entire rural community, thousands of protesters are expected today in this small rural town in south-central Oregon in an outpouring of support for the 1,400 farm families whose lives have been savaged by an unprecedented court-ordered cut-off of irrigation water from Upper
Klamath Lake — an order prompted by environmentalists’ concerns over the survival of two species of sucker fish and a species of salmon.

They’re here from all parts of the West, arriving by bus, car and plane, with hand-painted signs and banners waving, hoping to draw public awareness to the plight of the farmers. Politicians of various stripes are on the speakers list, which has expanded exponentially — Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif. and U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., among them.

“We’ve got 20 or 30 politicians coming in,” says Bob Gasser, one of the rally organizers. “It’s just sort of grown.”

The highlight of the event will be the noon-scheduled Bucket Brigade, when farmers and their sympathizers form a human chain to transport water, person-to-person, from Upper Klamath Lake to the main canal of the irrigation system in a symbolic act of solidarity. (To view map of Klamath Basin area, click here.)

“We have 50 buckets, one for every state in the union,” says Gasser, owner of Basin Fertilizer and Chemicals in Merrill, Ore. Actually, he explains, the water will be taken from Lake Ewana, a small lake that’s fed by a river from Upper Klamath Lake. “We’ll dip out the water and hand the buckets down the line to the A Canal where they’ll be emptied.
We want to draw attention to what’s happened here, to tell the American people that what happened to us can happen to them.”

As the farmers see it, it’s just a matter of time. Hence the rally’s simple message: “Us now, you’re next.”

The hand-delivered water will be the only water the canal receives for many months, if ever. Normally at this time of year it would be near brimful, as would be the hundreds of miles of secondary canals. Farmers would be in the fields planting their crops under clear skies unclouded by dust. Storeowners would be selling supplies and equipment. Waterfowl would be nesting near the canals and in the two wildlife refuges in the area.

That’s how it’s been for nearly 100 years — even when there’s been a drought, as there is this year.

But last month, two federal judges, in a set of related rulings, delivered a double-whammy that stopped this scenario, at least through this year and perhaps longer.

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Jerry Pyle, assistant manager, Tulelake Irrigation District, stands in empty irrigation ditch.

Despite the fact that Upper Klamath Lake is full, on Apr. 4, U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong of Oakland, Calif., barred the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from supplying water to the 1,400 farmers and over 6,000 other water-users that depend on the Klamath River Project. This vast network of canals was built in stages during the first decades of the last century by the federal government to carry water through a 240,000-acre area that straddles the Oregon-California line, turning what had been marshland and two large shallow lakes into farms and ranches.

Armstrong ruled that the bureau, the agency responsible for delivering the water, “committed a substantial procedural violation of the Endangered Species Act”
by operating the Klamath Project last year “without completing a biological assessment of the likely impact of that plan on the threatened coho salmon,” and without consulting with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which the act requires.

Until the bureau comes up with a plan for protecting the salmon, and until that plan is approved, nobody will receive any water — not the farmers, nor thousands of other water-users, not even the national wildlife refuges in the area.

The judge’s ruling was in response to a request for an injunction against water delivery brought by a coalition of seven environmental groups: Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Klamath Forest Alliance, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Northcoast Environmental Center, the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Golden Gate Audubon, and the Oregon Natural Resources Council. They were represented by EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund, formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Club.

The plaintiffs applauded Armstrong’s decision. “For the first time, coho and other salmon in the Klamath River, as well as coastal and river communities that depend on salmon, will not be sacrificed in order to make full deliveries to Upper Klamath Basin irrigators,” Felice Pace, chair of the Klamath Forest Alliance, told the Klamath Falls Herald and News. “After years of struggle, we have finally achieved some balance,” he said.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, lead plaintiff in the suit, said he feared that political pressure was being exercised “at the highest levels” to negate the force of the judge’s ruling.

“They’re trying to force the agencies to back away from what science requires and cut a deal where irrigators get some water,” he said.

If any deal-cutting was attempted, it wasn’t successful. Armstrong’s ruling hit the area like a sledgehammer, sending shock waves through the three affected counties: Modoc and Siskiyou counties in northern California, and Klamath County in southern Oregon.

“Farmers and ranchers are severely impacted by the decision,” said Marcia Armstrong, executive director of the Siskiyou County Farm Bureau and Siskiyou County Cattlemen’s Association. “Without water, farmers can’t grow crops, not even cover crops. They can’t do business and they have no livelihood. Ranchers in the project area are having to liquidate their stock — there’s no feed or water for them. The ranchers could lose everything.”

As the situation worsens, workers look for employment elsewhere; assessors of the affected counties have notified the fire, park and other taxing districts to expect a drop in revenues in the wake of plummeting property values; school districts worry about a loss of students. And farmers and ranchers wonder how they’ll make it through this year and beyond.

No water, no bank loan

Jeff Boyd, 34, a third-generation farmer in Tulelake, Calif., and a member of the board of directors of the Klamath Growers Association, was among the first casualties. A married man with three children not yet in their teens, Boyd was caught more-or-less by surprise by the judge’s decision. He’d expected some kind of cutback on water, but not a total shut-off. On Apr. 4 he had talked with his local lending institution, which told him to come back in a week to sign the papers as his loan to run the 1,000-acre family farm — which he farms with his father — would be funded.

Most farmers, Boyd explained, work off an annual operating loan: “You operate on the borrowed money, and at the end of the year you pay back the loan plus the interest, and if you have anything left, that’s your income for the year. But no water puts the brakes on everything. You don’t get your financing, you don’t get to raise your crops, and your income stream dries up.”

This is exactly what happened to Boyd. On Apr. 6, two days after his chat with his banker, the Bureau of Reclamation sent word to the farmers and their lending institutions that there would be no water this year. None. Not one drop. All the water in the reservoir would flow down the Klamath River to benefit the coho salmon. Well, not all. An enormous quantity must remain to keep the level of Upper Klamath Lake a foot or so higher-than-usual for the Lost River sucker fish and the short-nosed sucker fish, two species that live in the lake, and which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed as endangered in 1988. Boyd’s loan application took a direct hit.

“My banker called the following Monday [Apr. 9], and said, ‘We’d better put this on hold,’” Boyd recalled. “And that’s where it stands. My loan wasn’t denied, just put on hold. Basically, if I don’t get that loan, I don’t operate and I don’t have an income for the year.”

Boyd and his father raise small grains, like wheat and barley, potatoes, and peppermint, which is harvested for its oil. “Altogether we raise 800 acres of grain, 250 acres of potatoes and 70 acres of mint,” he said. “That’s not overly huge. Farms in the San Joachin Valley are thousands of acres. Here in Tulelake we’re still small family farms, and I’m involved in the everyday business, not only the business, but the labor, and my father is as well.”

Were the water flowing, their grain crops would be already in the ground and they’d be getting ready to plant potatoes. Instead, Boyd is thinking he should try planting some kind of cover crop just to keep down the dust that’s blanketing the area and causing car accidents.

“Last week [Apr. 16] we had a tremendous wind storm,” he said. “We always get some spring dust, but this was worse than it needed to be because some of the fields would have already been worked and watered and maybe planted. But during this storm there was an eight-car pileup north of Klamath Falls because of the dust. Fortunately, no one was killed.”

The dust has become so bad that some farmers have set up snow-fences — wire and slat fences designed to hold back drifting snow.

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A bleak testimonial: Snow-fence keeps dust from road.

Boyd said it’s not unlikely that the area becomes a dust bowl, a concern shared by many, in particular agencies like the Klamath Soil and Water Conservation District, which is charged with working with farmers to control erosion. In a sharply worded press release, Rick Woodley, manager of the district, blasted the decision of the Bureau of Reclamation to withhold water.

“This decision by the Bureau of Reclamation has placed the Klamath Basin at extreme risk for soil erosion, and the effects from wind-driven soil particles in the air. … Farmers, ranchers and other landowners, both public and private in this basin having been putting in monumental efforts for the implementation of the Clean Water Act in this watershed
and its rivers and streams. … As we begin to see our best efforts for clean water blow away, and loose, uncovered soil flow into the very water we are trying to improve, one is left to wonder how the decision to cut off the supply of water to the farmland is a good one.”

Woodley termed the decision “a slap in the face to the very people who worked so hard to improve water quality.” He predicts a series of dust storms throughout the summer. More specifically, the Soil Conservation Service foresees a loss of 410,000 tons of topsoil.

A ‘snowball effect’

Boyd and the farmers aren’t the only casualties. Support businesses, too, are caught in the wringer, businesses like that of his uncle, who sells farm equipment.

Boyd describes the resulting “snowball effect”: “I buy a lot of seeds and fertilizers. If I don’t get a loan because I’m not going to get water, then I don’t need to buy seeds and fertilizer, and those businesses go away. My uncle’s equipment dealership, for example. If nobody can farm, nobody needs to buy any equipment. My uncle must decide what to do: Lay people off? Close the doors? He has 15 to 18 people working for him. Also, we employ seasonal employees every year, migrant workers. They travel the state and work in different places. They’re Hispanic. Tulelake has a quite large, permanent Hispanic population, and they depend on work in the farming industry. They aren’t illegal immigrants. They’ve bought homes here, they have mortgages, they’re an integral part of the community. If I don’t raise my crops, if other farmers don’t raise crops, these people will go somewhere else to work.”

Then there are the schools. “We have a small school district, and the school people are worried about the loss of students,” said Boyd. “The state funds the school district based on average daily attendance, so if we lose many kids, we lose teachers. It’s an ‘ag-based’ economy, and if agriculture goes away, it takes the whole community away. It’s a snowball effect.”

Juan Carlos Hernandez, 13-years-old and a 4-H member, echoed Boyd’s concerns: “It’s hurting everyone, even people who are not in farming, like the store workers. They sell stuff to the farmers, but the farmers won’t be buying anything. They’ll be losing their jobs. Everybody’s going to be moving out.”

Juan Carlos, who lives with his parents in Tulelake, Calif., explained how his own 4-H chapter is being rolled in the snowball effect. The young people raise pigs that are sold at auctions. Normally, these are a successful venture, but not now.

“We’re having a problem with the auctions because not very many people are going to want to buy the pigs,” he said. “If people are out of work, they aren’t going to be able to buy the pigs.”

Across the state line in Merrill, Ore., Steve and Nancy Kandra ponder their future. The Kandras grow alfalfa and hay on 1,000 acres Steve’s grandfather farmed. Since alfalfa is a perennial crop, they figure they might get at least one crop this year.

“Usually we’d get three or four crops — we call them ‘cuttings — in a normal summer,” Mrs. Kandra explained. “But they’ll not live through another year without water. So all that investment is gone, and we’ll have to start over.”

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Steve Kandra by irrigation gate.

She and her husband consider themselves relatively lucky because they rely on perennials. The row-crop farmers, who plant potatoes, onions and horseradish are the hardest hit. If their crops were not in the ground by early May, with a good supply of water assured, there will be no harvest.

At 48-years-old and with their children grown, Kandra has more time for community affairs, and he focuses his efforts on helping solve problems relating to water allocation and habitat restoration. He is president of the Klamath Irrigation District, a charter member of the Klamath Basin Ecosystem Foundation and a charter member of the Klamath Basin Working Group. The latter organization, a 30-member body of the various community interests — farming, environmental, tribal and so on — was established by former Democratic Sen. Mark Hatfield in 1994, during a period of severe drought. The group meets regularly to work on ecosystem restoration plans and deal with issues such as the ones they’re facing now. The Working Group is responsible for “a tremendous amount of restoration” in the Klamath Basin, says Kandra.

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Kandra has harsh words for the environmental groups that sued the Bureau of Reclamation and precipitated Armstrong’s decision — in particular the Oregon Natural Resources Council and Klamath Forest Alliance, who chose to use the courts rather than the mediation table to achieve their ends.

“We’ve been plodding along, trying to work out compromises,” Kandra said. “Tens of thousands of acres that were productive farmland have been turned back into wetlands or put in some kind of reserve program.”

“And what was our reward for that?” he asks. “They took the rest of the water away. It’s not like we haven’t been trying. We have. But some people, some groups, just haven’t been at the table — by their choice. They were invited, but chose to walk away. It was a little easier for them to sue the federal government, rather than work with us. Instead of
putting their dollars and their time into helping us facilitate restoration, they chose to put their dollars into harassment and legal action. Groups like the ONRC and Klamath Forest Alliance are two of the entities that did this.”

The farmers of the project have not stood idly by, watching everything they and their fathers and grandfathers worked for blow away in the wind. In late April, the Klamath Water Users Association, the Tulelake Irrigation District, the Klamath Irrigation District and farmers Steve Kandra and David Cacka sought a preliminary injunction requiring the
bureau to honor its contracts and deliver their water.

The same groups that had sought the original injunction in Armstrong’s court, weighed in as intervenors on the side of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“My family has been here a long, long time,” said Kandra, explaining his motive for involvement. “I’m a farmer and involved in community activities, so it just seemed appropriate to step up and be one of the people who carries this issue forward.”

On Monday, Apr. 30, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken of Eugene, Ore., in a 37-page ruling, rejected their request and upheld the bureau’s decision to reserve the water in Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River for fish, rather than delivering it to the farmers in the project.

Aiken ruled that under the Administrative Procedures Act, an agency decision must be upheld unless it is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law,” and the judge didn’t believe cutting off water to the farmers was any of those things.

“Given the high priority the law places on species threatened with extinction, I cannot find that the balance of hardship tips sharply in the plaintiffs’ favor,” Aiken wrote.

“While the court sympathizes with plaintiffs and their plight, I am bound by oath to uphold the law. The law requires the protection of suckers and salmon as endangered species and as tribal trust resources, even if plaintiffs disagree with the manner in which the fish are protected or believe that they inequitably bear the burden of such
protection.”

Tessa Steubli, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, appraised the ruling. “She [Judge Aiken] addressed each of our arguments, but the bottom line is that she must uphold the law, and she said that under the law endangered species are more important than any type of economic harm that could come to human beings. Therefore,
the suckers get the water.”

Debra Crisp, executive director of the Tulelake Growers Association, said she was “extremely disappointed” by the decision. “I doubt had the judge taken the time to review all the briefs and declarations she would have ruled as she did,” said Crisp. “The information that was submitted was overwhelmingly in favor of the Klamath Project. I was hoping the judge would make a reasonable decision.

“Zero water is not a reasonable decision, especially when the lake is full,” Crisp added. “Nobody is denying that there is a drought here, and nobody is denying that fish need water. But they don’t need all the water. The socio-economic impact and the environmental damage are going to be devastating.”

And unnecessary, according to Prof. Alex Horne, of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department of the University of California, Berkeley, a world-renowned scientist in the field of limnology — the study of freshwater bodies: ponds, lakes and rivers. Prof. Horne was called in as a consultant by the Klamath Water Users Association.

“The solution seemed to me that the farmers probably could have some water this year, especially as they are farming old wetlands,” Horne explained. “The area is more like the [Sacramento River] delta rather than a desert. These farmers live in places that were wetlands and where there was a lake. So it’s not like they’re diverting water into the high
desert in Arizona where there never were any wetlands.”

“A farm uses about the same amount of water as a wetland on the same area,” he continued. “Now you might prefer to have a wetland rather than a farm, but strictly from a water point of view it makes no difference; they both use a lot of water, so naturally some of that water would have gone down there to keep those wetlands alive in the old days.

“That’s why it seems to me that in the emergency we had, we could have given the farmers water, given the fish upstream and downstream water, and the water quality could have been preserved by adding some oxygen to the lake, particularly in the deep area,” he said.

Horne said he was disappointed to read in the news that the farmers weren’t going to get their water, “but you know, Endangered Species Act is a very great, blunt club. There’s not much sophistication about it yet, and I think we need a lot more sophistication in the way we do things.”

But though bludgeoned with that “great, blunt club,” the farmers are somehow managing to hold firm. Reg LeQuieu, assessor for Klamath County, Ore., reports that there have been no desperation sales of farms, at least not in his county. “People are holding pretty tight, and we’re hoping the farmers hang tough, at least for a while and not panic,” he said.

“But some of them are in a position where it’s almost like they’re waiting for their own execution. They’re in dire straits. And it’s totally unnecessary.”

Steve Kandra is among those not about to call it quits. “What they’re hoping is that we’ll dry up and blow away, but what they’ve done is develop a lot of stubborn resolve in a lot of people,” he said.

Asked if this were the end of the line: “Heck no, this is just the beginning,” he answered confidently. “All the judge did was rule on a preliminary injunction, we tried to get the head-gate open so we can get water to the project. But there’s going to be accountability. People are going to be made accountable. They’re going to be exposed, they’re going to be made well known. We’re going to work these issues out, we’ve got to. But it will be a long haul,” he added.

Related column:

Tightening the screws

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