GOP takes side of farmers who have lost water


Mar 11, 2001
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Published Sunday, June 24, 2001

GOP takes side of farmers who have lost water
Cutoff of irrigation water to save endangered fish has sparked a new debate on the Endangered Species Act

ROB CRAWFORD, his wife LeAnne and daughter Callie walk along a parched irrigation ditch on the family farm in Tulelake.

By Douglas Jehl


KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. -- A federal decision to cut off irrigation water to what for 90 years has been a lush and fertile agricultural valley here has left the region seething in resentment and reignited a debate over the Endangered Species Act, blamed as the chief culprit in a case of humans losing out.

Under the act, the Bureau of Reclamation ordered the cutoff on April 7 to guarantee maximum protection to the endangered sucker fish and the threatened coho salmon during a year of record drought.

But the silencing of the sprinklers has now turned the lives of some 1,400 family farmers and ranchers upside down, with at least 200,000 acres of farmland on both sides of the Oregon-California border left parched, and no clear answer to when the federally subsidized water might flow again.

The farmers and their supporters have denounced what they call an unconscionable betrayal.

And now -- to an extent not seen since the battles over the spotted owl in the early 1990s -- conservatives around the country are embracing their cause as the best example yet of what is wrong with a law they say demands revision.

"This is ground zero in the debate over the Endangered Species Act," Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said on June 16, kicking off a field hearing in a fairgrounds hall where bleachers were filled with thousands of angry men and women who wore cowboy hats and boots and carried bitter, sardonic signs like one that read: "No water, no crops, no jobs, no farmers. Thank you, United States."

With a federal court having rejected pleas to order a resumption of the water's flow, Walden and Rep. Wally Herger, R-Chico, have asked Interior Secretary Gale Norton to convene a group of seven Cabinet-level officials to consider the case.

The group, known as the God Squad, is charged with weighing economics against extinction, and has the power to override provisions of the law that promise primacy to the protection of listed plants and animals.

The group has considered such a request only three times before, in cases involving the whooping crane, the snail darter and the spotted owl.

The administration has not yet made a decision on the latest request, but a top Interior Department official has held out some prospect for change, promising at the hearing that the administration would ask outside experts to review an opinion issued in April by the Fish and Wildlife Service that led to the decision to cut off the farmers' water.

The opinion was prepared by career officials at the wildlife service, which is headed by an acting chief because the new administration has not chosen its own.

In her testimony, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, Norton's deputy chief of staff, said the water-level recommendations contained in that opinion had left the reclamation bureau, also still headed by an acting chief, no option but to order the water cutoff.

The wildlife service and the reclamation bureau are both agencies of the Interior Department.

Soon, Congress is expected to approve an administration request for some $20 million in emergency aid to those most affected by the water cutoff.

But local officials estimate this year's farm losses at $250 million, and neither the discussion of the aid package nor the other assurances did much to soothe the mood of the crowd at the June 16 hearing, which included men like Rob Crawford, 43, who sees the Endangered Species Act as a tool used by environmentalists and their allies in government for what he calls "rural cleansing."

"We're real people here, and we're being annihilated," Crawford said later, his voice choked with emotion as he drove a visitor in his pickup through his fields.

In any other year, he said, they would have been rich and green with wheat, onions, barley, potatoes and peppermint. This year, with the irrigation ditches dry, the land is little more than cracked earth and sturdy weeds.

But as environmentalists like Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council point out, the region's lushness in what is really a high desert was always artificial.

It was a product of damming and diversion of the Klamath River, which was completed in 1909 and prompted the federal government to lure World War I and World War II veterans to the isolated region as homesteaders with promises of free water in perpetuity.

The American taxpayer, Kerr argued, should not have to subsidize marginal farming forever.

Like most farmers in the country, environmentalists point out, farmers in the Klamath Basin benefit heavily from federal subsidies.

A draft analysis being prepared for the Wilderness Society and based on figures from the federal Farm Service Agency put the figure for total direct farming subsidies in the three-country area last year at $6.5 million.

Kerr, who criticizes what he calls the "give-me-water-or-give-me-death" attitude of some of the farmers, says the best solution to the problem would be to reduce drastically the amount of farming in the region, to ensure that in future years there will be enough water for fish and farmers.

Along with representatives of other conservation groups, he has drafted a plan that would have the federal government buy up much of the basin's farmland and set it aside as a preserve, while paying premium prices to the farmers to assist in their transition.

Not surprising, though, discussion of that plan has offended many local people, who say they have little concern for the fate of the shortnose and lost river sucker fish, an all-but-inedible bottom-feeder found in the Upper Klamath Lake.

The sucker has been listed as an endangered species since 1988, and it is also a perfect target for the conservatives who took delight in ridiculing the snail darter and the spotted owl, too.

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

Already, in towns like Klamath Falls, population 17,000, and Tulelake, population 1,000, businesses have begun to close and school populations have plunged by as much as 30 percent, reflecting an exodus of farm workers, most of them Latino, who headed out in search of work in places where there might be water this year.

Ranchers have begun to try to sell their sheep and cows, and local officials say visits have picked up at community mental health clinics and a food bank that has successfully appealed to grocery store chains for donations of hundreds of thousands of pounds of food.

"It's a bleak picture," said Tony Giacomelli, 46, the owner of Jock's Supermarket in Tulelake, who added that on that morning alone, three more families had turned up in search of empty boxes for a move out of town.

In rejecting the appeal aimed at reviving the water flow, Judge Ann Aiken of U.S. district court in Eugene, not only upheld the action by the Bureau of Reclamation but also seemed to set a high barrier for any change.

She ruled that the agency had violated the Endangered Species Act last year by supplying inadequate flows to the threatened coho salmon, which are found below the dam in the Klamath River.

The act was supposed to have been reauthorized in 1990, but efforts to do so have been blocked, despite a widening overall perception among both Republicans and Democrats that elements of the law may be flawed.

Norton and her predecessor as interior secretary in the Clinton administration, Bruce Babbitt, have complained that federal agencies have been unable to accomplish their task of identifying what species to protect.

Environmentalists tend to see the law as a success story in need of only small revisions, while many developers, timber owners and their allies have called for drastic overhaul.

The Bush administration has been guarded in its stance; while Norton has opposed provisions of the act in the past, she promised during her confirmation hearings to uphold the law as it stands, and said it would be up to Congress to propose any revisions.

The hearing here on Saturday of the House Resources Committee drew only the Republican members of the panel, and they were uniformly critical of the government for turning off the irrigation water.

"If this action holds, it will spread across the West," one committee member, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., warned to applause.

Crawford, farmer and father of two, said he too wanted to see the act rewritten, to give a more equal weighting to what he called the often-sidelined interests of the "human species."

But Crawford said he feared any changes would come too late for the Klamath basin.

"We're the corpse," he said. "We're the casualty."

jerry d

Well-known member
Mar 17, 2001
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Wonder what would happen if the water was cut off to the Central and Imperial Valleys. Bet it would be hell to pay!!!!

That would probably never happen, too many $$ and votes in those areas and that seems to attract water in this state.


Mar 21, 2001
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Most likely the Federal Government is going tp pick up the tab and pay farmers for lost income. The figure being tossed around is 20-40 million dollars.
A prolonged period without normal rainfall will not last forever. Hopefully a normal winter will end this water crisis.

Mike Riley

Mar 15, 2001
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Droughts don't last forever, but water problems at the Klamath might if the Feds don't deal with the ESA and Indian Treaty water allocations.  Even in wet years their is always a struggle for water in the Basin.  The farmers & the Tribes are always fighting over water and now the salmon folks are going to want increased flows every year.  For the refuges, the real problem lies in the timing of flood up.  The spring flood up for molt works out OK because it conincides with farming iirigation.  The fall flood up (for hunting)has been a problem in the last decade.  The fall flood up timing is not during any run off, and Klamath Lake is low after the spring and summer.  You can count on Lower Klamath NWR flood up problems until there is a compromise with the ESA regarding the minnow and salmon.   Remember last year there was plenty of water and flood up was held until pro-hunting groups applied enough pressure to get partial water on the hunt area.  2 opener draws, reduced opener quota, and opening week draws at the LK - how soon we forget.
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