A new year, another round in the Klamath Basin


The Oregonian

T alk about unwelcome summer reruns. With a below-normal snowpack in the Cascades, above-normal temperatures in the Klamath Basin and a continuing stalemate among its various stakeholders, the stage is set for a replay of the Klamath water wars.

Before the shouting and finger-pointing begin, why is it conflict in the Klamath seems unending while other watersheds have settled their battles?

Washington farmers and orchard owners in the broad, flat plain of the Walla Walla, for example, have agreed to restore flows that revive stocks of endangered bull trout and steelhead. "There was very little pontificating," Trout Unlimited's Jeff Curtis recalls of the growers who sat across the bargaining table from him. "They admitted they were breaking the law, and it just became a question of how quickly they were going to fix the problem."

That kind of quiet problem-solving rarely makes the front pages. But defiant farmers threatening to battle anyone who gets between them and the spigots do. A larger story has been lost in all the Klamath brouhaha: The federal Bureau of Reclamation provides the philosophy and support that has enabled its more vocal farmer-clients to launch their own single-minded crusade for full, uncompromising water deliveries.

Because the federal government makes the final water delivery decisions in the Klamath Project, its farmers are shielded from litigation over violations of environmental laws.

The bureau's mandate, when it was created by Congress in 1902, was to attract settlers to the arid lands of the West by building dams and irrigation systems, transforming vast tracts of desert to arable, productive farmland. In an era of abundant water, the bureau built seven dams and 516 miles of irrigation ditches in the Klamath Basin.

Today, in a far different era, its Klamath Project is an increasingly isolated oasis still trying to operate as if supplies of water to its 1,400 family farmers were limitless.

Its more vocal farmers, taking their cue from their parent agency, are playing a higher-stakes game than their counterparts in other watersheds, eschewing the bargaining table and instead pushing for no cutbacks in water deliveries. So far, they've been remarkably successful at using the media and buttonholing politicians to make their case.

The century-old policy of protecting the farmers explains, for example, why it took the bureau a decade to install a fish screen on its main irrigation diversion canal at Upper Klamath Lake after being told it was in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

More recently, in a watershed that saw the deaths of 33,000 endangered salmon last fall, the bureau successfully pushed to reduce minimum stream flows in the Klamath River -- all to protect water deliveries to its client farmers. Many farmers work out disputes While the Klamath seems locked in a pattern of denial, foot-dragging and endless studies, farmers in nearby watersheds have been sitting down with government agencies and conservationists working out solutions to water disputes.

It's not that other growers are more altruistic than their Klamath counterparts -- no farmer wants to give up water rights. But few growers have the protection the Klamath farmers have. Most, when confronted with lawsuits and other repercussions from environmental law violations, must deal with them directly as members of privately operated irrigation districts.

Walla Walla growers were threatened with having their water supply cut off and the possibility of severe criminal and civil penalties. Growers were draining a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of the river every summer to irrigate their fields and orchards. The practice was stranding hundreds of bull trout and thousands of steelhead, both listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

"They knew if they didn't change their practices they'd be taken to the woodshed and that it would be very painful," said Mike Bireley, who, now retired, was a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife official at the time.

The growers soon reached an agreement to restore minimum flows in the previously dried-out stretch of the river. That was in 2000 -- no fish have been lost since because of inadequate stream flows. Some eventually give in The small landowners on the forested slopes of the Rogue River Valley, on the other hand, went through a long period of denial as pressure was applied by the National Marine Fisheries Service and conservation groups to remove or modify a dam that hindered salmon and steelhead passage to the upper Rogue River.

As is still the case among some Klamath farmers, at first the Rogue River farmers denied any responsibility for the problem. After several changes in leadership in the Grants Pass Irrigation District -- going back and forth from pro-dam to anti-dam -- and nearly going bankrupt from $750,000 in legal bills, district members finally voted overwhelmingly to take down the dam.

While their counterparts in the region have learned -- often through painful necessity -- the art of deal-making and compromise, the Klamath Project farmers embrace an entirely different set of skills: public relations and politicking.

When their water was shut off in 2001, a vocal contingent of farmers successfully portrayed itself in the media as symbols of the beleaguered farmer, beset by forces wanting to "cleanse" them from the American countryside. At the same time, they worked the corridors of power effectively, persuading Interior Secretary Gale Norton to restore 57 percent of normal water deliveries in a year that had 52 percent of normal rainfall.

And they were instrumental in killing legislation sponsored by Senator Ron Wyden that would have paved the way for a federal buyout of Klamath farmland by those willing to sell. That bill would have eased the water crunch. But it is viewed by the hardcore group as the first step toward "cleansing" the Klamath Project of farmland. Outside pressures grow Now forces beyond the purview of the Bureau of Reclamation are chipping away at its domain. Native Americans are just beginning to assert long-held rights to Klamath water. Globalization and Nafta are driving down prices for many of the commodities grown by Klamath farmers.

In 2006, when a 50-year-old power contract expires, a substantial rate increase looms for the electricity that drives the project's irrigation pumps. And it's unlikely the bureau can indefinitely resist pressures to share more water with endangered fish and other wildlife.

The federal government must exert more leadership than it has for a Klamath solution. It created the Klamath Project, negotiated the treaties with Native Americans and is responsible for protecting endangered wildlife. Only the federal government has the authority to balance all these competing interests.

Sadly, it's proven adept only at responding to a small but vocal minority of Klamath farmers. At the same time the bureau has failed to come up with a long-term, consistent policy among its warring agencies.

That could change. Last year President Bush set up a Cabinet-level task force, charging it to look into "the complex issues in the Klamath River Basin" in a report due in September.

We can only hope this will be more than another dead-end study. An administration led by a self-described "uniter, not a divider" has done little to bring the warring Klamath parties together. Instead, it has aggravated existing divisions in the region.


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