Klamath bucket brigade

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Farmers protest loss of water 10,000 protest water cutoffs

Klamath Basin farmers losing irrigation to save endangered fish

Eric Brazil, Chronicle Staff Writer Tuesday, May 8, 2001 2001 San Francisco Chronicle

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2001/05/08/MN188229.DTL

Imploring Congress to amend the Endangered Species Act, thousands of farmers and their families and supporters rallied yesterday to protest the shutoff of irrigation water to the Klamath Basin.

In an event designed to draw national attention to their plight, about 10, 000 farmers and friends lined up in Klamath Falls, Ore., to pass buckets of water drawn from Upper Klamath Lake up Main Street to the principal irrigation canal supplying the basin.

The arid 200,000-acre Klamath Basin, which straddles the Oregon-California border, is ground zero in the battle over how to factor in the needs of people when enforcing the Endangered Species Act.

Some 1,400 family farmers who grow potatoes, onions, horseradish and other crops are locked in a grimly emotional battle with fishermen, Indian tribes and environmentalists whose lawsuit has deprived the growers of irrigation water.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation determined in April that releasing irrigation water from Upper Klamath Lake during one of the worst droughts in memory could imperil coho salmon in the Klamath River and the long nose and Lost River sucker fish, which live in the lake.

Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Jeff McCracken said that the decision to close the irrigation spigot at Upper Klamath Lake for farmers is the first time a bureau decision has ever forced an entire area to stop farming.

The planting season for potatoes and onions has ended, and it's doubtful whether receiving irrigation water within the next two weeks would be of any help for those crops.

The Klamath Basin receives only 12 inches of rain in a normal year, and it is subject to high winds. Longtime residents fear that lack of irrigation water will create a dust bowl this summer and also deprive waterfowl and bald eagles of the canals that have been their habitat for nearly a century.

Farmers in parts of Siskiyou and Modoc counties in California and Klamath County in Oregon have received irrigation water from the Klamath Basin Project since 1907.

Several speakers at yesterday's rally called for reforming the Endangered Species Act to prevent such draconian results.

The Klamath Basin is "the poster child" for changes in the act, said Rep. Wally Herger, R-Marysville.

"If the government chooses to save the sucker fish, it must not make suckers of Klamath County," said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.

Douglas Mosebar, a California Farm Bureau vice president from Visalia, saw the Bureau of Reclamation's action as a prelude to a campaign to damage agriculture.

"The cutoff of water to the Klamath Basin leaves no doubt about the agenda of environmentalists and their allies in the federal fisheries agencies," Mosebar said. "They want to push agriculture out of large parts of the West. It's not just the Klamath Basin. It's the western San Joaquin Valley. . . . It's anywhere bureaucrats have failed to balance the needs of people and fish."

HORSERADISH THREATENED Paul Christy, who at age 83 was one of four founders of the Tulelake Horseradish Producers Association, said that without irrigation water in June and July, there will be no horseradish crop from the basin's 1,000 acres. Tulelake provides all of the horseradish consumed west of the Mississippi.

Christy, like several of the farmers in the area, is a World War II service veteran who homesteaded the ranchland he won in a post-war lottery.

"It's taken 50 years to put all this (horseradish growing, processing and marketing) together, but now with this water thing -- we have some pretty nutty people -- we call 'em the green people -- over the hill," Christy said. "It's hard to believe that it could all be wrecked."

Another World War II veteran, Jess Prosser, a 1946 homesteader, dipped the first bucket for the water brigade line. It was passed to his son John, who passed it to his son James, the handoffs symbolizing the generational structure of Klamath Basin farming.

DISASTER AREAS Gov. Gray Davis has declared drought-stricken Modoc and Siskiyou counties disaster areas and ordered emergency relief for both, following the lead of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who declared Klamath County a disaster area last month.

Davis has directed $5 million in emergency funding to the state Office of Emergency Service, which intends to drill 12 wells in the two affected counties.

"We can't go up there and replace the water that has been lost, but we want to provide some for plantings and in order to prevent soil erosion," said OES Deputy Director Paul Jacks.

The Klamath Basin controversy has generated so much heat that it reached Vice President Dick Cheney, who was instrumental in persuading the Bureau of Reclamation to release 10 percent of the water that irrigates the basin to Oregon's Langell Valley, which is served by reservoirs not connected to Upper Klamath Lake.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. / E-mail Eric Brazil at ebrazil@sfchronicle.com.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 09, 2001

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