(OR)Water fight engulfs parched Northwest* Irrigation cutoff meant to save fish wiping out crops*

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Water fight engulfs parched Northwest Irrigation cutoff meant to save fish wiping out crops

By V. Dion Haynes Tribune staff reporter

Published July 27, 2001

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. -- By order of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, irrigation water flowed this week to the Klamath Basin for the first time in three months. But it was too late to save parched alfalfa and potato crops or to end a confrontation pitting farmers against three endangered species of fish.

Farmers set up camp two weeks ago at the headgates of a federal dam on Upper Klamath Lake to protest the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's decision in April to shut off water to growers despite a record drought.

Federal officials said the Endangered Species Act and other federal orders required them to keep the lake at a certain level to protect coho salmon and two types of suckers. The coho are listed as a threatened species in this area, and the suckers are endangered.

For the first time in nearly a century, the government cut off water to the 1,200 farms along the Klamath River Basin, an area of more than 200,000 acres along the Oregon-California border.

Though the subsequent protests have been peaceful, some demonstrators have repeatedly broken into a dam facility and illegally opened headgates to temporarily restore water.

This week, Norton determined that recent rainstorms and conservation measures by area farmers had helped boost the lake level and authorized the release of 75,000-acre-feet of water, about one-fifth of what is used for irrigation every year.

"There simply is not enough water to do more than provide a little relief to some desperate farm families during the remainder of this season," she said.

Already controversial for what environmental groups say is a pro-business approach, Norton oversees three agencies that have differing points of view on the Klamath Basin: the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Her latest decision appears to have pleased no one. Indian tribes who depend on the coho for food and commerce say her action further threatened the river's fragile salmon population. Environmentalists warn that the region's entire ecosystem is in danger of falling apart. Farmers weigh in by saying the federal action is only a stopgap and refuse to abandon their protest.

"Our focus is to get a long-term solution: to amend the Endangered Species Act ... to give us sufficient water every year," said Gavin Rajnus, 33, a wheat and potato farmer who is among dozens of farmers at the protest site, dubbed Camp Headgate.

As he spoke, a handful of U.S. park police officers kept watch over the irrigation channel controls, an upside down American flag flapped in the breeze, and cows and other farm animals roamed near haystacks.

"We need to get the federal government to look at the devastation closing the headgates has caused," Rajnus said, estimating his losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. "In saving two species, tons of other wildlife are suffering. Wetlands are drying up and turtles, frogs, snakes and birds are dying."

Parched fields

Across the basin, irrigation sprinklers sit idle in parched fields. The ground has dried and cracked in many erstwhile wetlands. Migratory pelicans that normally flock by the thousands to the area's six wildlife refuges have dwindled in number. Protest signs such as "Our farmers are an endangered species, we need the water" are the only bumper crop this year.

But the Oregon Natural Resources Council said the Interior Department, in releasing the extra water to farmers, violated the Endangered Species Act. The act, according to the organization, requires the government to allocate extra water to wildlife refuges.

"What they chose to do is a largely symbolic effort that is not going to help the farmers at all," said Regna Merritt, executive director of the ONRC.

Nearly 2 million cranes, swans, pelicans and other waterfowl spend their winter months in the refuge, she said. Moreover, 1,100 protected bald eagles, the largest population of the species in the Lower 48 states, also stop there.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service said that as many as 900 eagles could die if they are deprived of their habitat," Merritt said. "If we fail to deliver water for their survival, we'll put their recovery in jeopardy."

The U.S. government authorized the 500-mile irrigation project in 1905 as part of an effort to lure farmers and other settlers to the West. Now the basin is among the nation's most productive agricultural areas, yielding potatoes, onions, barley and wheat.

"My grandfather moved here from the East and started this farm. My father farmed the land until he died. My brother and I took over working the land when I was 14," said Rob Crawford, 44, who has 1,400 acres.

Too little, too late

The water from this week's release isn't expected to reach Crawford's property for two weeks, too late to do his crops any good.

Standing in a potato field full of dead weeds and pointing to an empty irrigation canal, Crawford added: "Now it's like a rug was pulled out from under you."

For 80 years, farmers and Native American fisheries had first crack at the Klamath water. But in the late 1980s the suckers were classified as protected under the Endangered Species Act, making fish preservation a higher priority. The coho was placed on the list in 1997.

This spring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the river habitat had gotten worse and called for more water to be held back to protect the fish. Amid the worst drought on record, a federal court prohibited water distribution to farmers until federal officials determined there was enough for the fish.

"We were facing something that never happened before," said Jeffrey McCracken, spokesman for the federal Bureau of Reclamation. "The Endangered Species Act trumps everything else in terms of water allocation."

Farms versus fish

Besides pitting farmers against the fish, the water crisis has pointed out a longtime rift between agriculture upstream and commercial fishing downstream.

Saying agriculture has benefited for years at their expense, commercial fishermen are seeking greater crackdowns on farmers' use of Klamath water.

"We have lost 4,000 jobs mainly because of agriculture," said Glen Spain, northwest regional director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, a coalition that represents 26 fishing groups. "Agriculture takes water out of the lower river that we desperately need."

He added that the crisis could have been minimized had the Bureau of Reclamation followed through on demands by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service in 1992 to make habitat improvements such as installing screens to keep fish out of irrigation canals.

Meanwhile, federal and state officials, farmers, environmentalists and fishermen have been meeting with a court-mandated mediator to discuss long-range solutions, including the drilling of wells, habitat restoration and the purchase of farms to take them out of business.

"What we hope will come out of all this is the recognition that this was an economic disaster in the making for a long time," said Pat Foulk, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service region that oversees the Klamath area. "We need to develop basinwide solutions so we can restore the environment, restore the economy and keep humans and wildlife in balance."

-- Tess (webwoman@iamit.com), July 27, 2001

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