Western Drought Victims War Over Water

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Western Drought Victims War Over Water

By Michelle Locke Associated Press Sunday, July 8, 2001; Page A10


Along the dusty road to Tulelake, homemade signs shout out a community's desperation: "Welcome to the Klamath Project, largest water theft in history" and "Unemployed farmer will work 4 food."

That despair has turned to defiance along the California-Oregon border. On Independence Day, more than 100 people armed with a diamond-bladed chain saw and a cutting torch cut open an irrigation headgate that prevented Klamath River water from reaching parched farmland.

Because of a drought, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cut off the irrigation water in April, diverting what water there was for endangered fish.

Along with environmentalists, the commercial fishermen and Indian tribes that depend on the fish called the irrigation cutoff a painful but necessary step.

But residents of the dried-up town of Tulelake see only disaster.

"People's lives have been ruined," said grocer Tony Giacomelli.

Standing on what used to be the rich, black earth of her potato field, Eleanor Bolesta's feet sink into dust, dry as wheat flour.

Bolesta, a Wave in World War II, got the land as part of a government homestead program for returning veterans, the first woman among several farmers in the region to do so. "Oh boy, was it unusual!"

At 78, she depends on the money she gets renting her land to a farmer, but farmland without water isn't much use.

"This is why I'm really angry," she said. "If he can't plant potatoes and make a living then he can't afford to rent my land and what am I going to do? It's really awful. It's just like we're in a bad dream and it's getting worse."

The land Bolesta settled is part of the nearly 100-year-old federal Klamath Project, which diverts water to about 200,000 acres of farmland used by about 1,400 farms and ranches.

Because of the drought and findings by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that more water is needed by endangered sucker fish and threatened coho salmon in Upper Klamath Lake, the project's primary reservoir, and the Klamath River, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has no water left over to irrigate 90 percent of the project's land.

Many farms in the basin have wells or access to other irrigation districts, but those that rely on the Klamath Project have been forced to sell cattle, let pastures and fields go brown, and stop planting crops.

Klamath Project farmers estimate their losses this year at more than $200 million.

They say the government promised them the water, that the science behind the shut-off is flawed and that the government's action has had the side effect of harming an important wildlife refuge near Tulelake, which sits in the Pacific Flyway heavily used by migratory birds.

The farmers frame the dispute as one of fish vs. people.

But on the other side of the argument, "there are people behind the fish," said Troy Fletcher of the Yurok Tribe.

The Yurok, a tribe of about 4,300, live down river from the Klamath Project.

In a treaty signed generations before the Klamath Project, the Yurok gave up much of their land in return for being guaranteed the right to make a living by fishing the river.

And like the farmers, "there are Yurok veterans and there are Yurok people who died in the war," Fletcher said.

With the fish declining, tribal unemployment is at 75 percent and much of the reservation is without power.

The Klamath Tribes of Oregon also signed a treaty that guaranteed them water to support fishing, but they had to stop fishing in 1986 because of dwindling numbers of sucker fish.

The tribes are not alone. Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations said his members' livelihoods also are at risk. The number of commercial salmon fishing vessel permits issued by California has shrunk from 7,744 in 1980 to 1,800 in 1999, he said.

"My people who have lived in those ports for generations, just like the farmers, cannot work in their community because there's no fishing," he said.

Spain sympathizes with Klamath Project farmers as victims of "an arrogant and bloated federal water project that promised them far more than it could ever deliver."

But "farmers have lots of places where they can grow potatoes," Spain said. "Fish have only one river."

Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, an environmental group, said the drought has brought the region's real problems into focus: It doesn't have the water to support the level of farming that's occurred, and its crops can't compete with cheaper produce from Canada, Mexico and China.

Around Tulelake, people without wells worry they won't be able to drill one or find a way to share one. People who drilled wells worry they'll go bust without a good crop to pay off the loan they took out to drill. Business is down, students are leaving and farm laborers who have lived here for decades are moving away to find work.

"It's one thing to lose our business, but that's not what's happening here," farmer John Crawford said. "What we've got here is we've got fourth-generation farmers whose ancestors were World War I veterans who came here and homesteaded . . . with a guarantee of water for the rest of their lives. We built the schools. We built the churches. We built the businesses."

2001 The Washington Post Company


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 08, 2001

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