After Year without Water, Klamath Basin Farmers Look to Better Future

About 1,400 farmers in the Klamath Reclamation Project (Ore.) are hoping to get back on track after the first summer ever when fish, not farmers, got first dibs on drought-diminished water supplies. Farmers are anticipating their full allotment of water this year, aided by a plentiful mountain snowpack and a National Academy of Sciences finding that last year's water shutoff was not scientifically justified.
The episode kick-started the most serious federal government effort yet to get at the roots of the environmental problems that spawned conflict verging on violence in the Klamath Basin, located on the California-Oregon border.
With water scarce because of drought, federal biologists set minimum water levels in Upper Klamath Lake, saying it was necessary under the Endangered Species Act to protect endangered sucker fish. Cutbacks were also implemented in the Klamath River to aid threatened salmon. That left little water for farmers who rely on the Klamath Project that irrigates about half the basin's farmland.
Flag-waving protesters forced open the project's primary headgates on the Fourth of July, setting off confrontations involving farmers, salmon fishers, American Indian tribes and conservationists. Court-ordered mediation failed, and lawsuits piled up.
There have been a couple of bankruptcies, and a few farmers sold out. But banks are lending money for spring planting this year, even as farmers hedge their risk by staying out of capital-intensive crops, said Greg Williams, vice president of Farm Credit Services.
Citing the need to respect the property rights of Indians as well as farmers, Interior Secretary Gale Norton has initiated talks with the Klamath Tribes, whose efforts to sustain their traditional fisheries produced much of the scientific argument in favor of last year's water shutoff. Topics include treaty rights to enough water to sustain traditional tribal fisheries and restoration of 692,000 acres of reservation land liquidated by the federal government in the 1960s and 1970s.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for everybody to roll up their sleeves and go to work to come up with a solution," said Tribal Chairman Allen Foreman.
The quantity of water has been the focus of conflict, but final resolution of the Klamath issue will depend on water quality. Farm field runoff into Upper Klamath Lake produces algae blooms that in some years kill thousands of fish by depleting the water's oxygen. Last year's higher lake level was intended to dilute the pollution.
If the tribes get authority to exercise the region's water rights, they could reduce the amount of water being diverted to ranches in the upper basin as well as the amount of pollution running into the lake, said Robert Hunter of WaterWatch of Oregon, a water conservation group. That in turn would provide cleaner water for threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River below the lake and allow more water to be used by the farms of the Klamath Project.
Restoring the landscape will help the tribes climb out of poverty and the entire basin regain certainty over water, Foreman said. "That's the problem with the Endangered Species Act," Foreman said. "It only keeps (the fish) alive. Our standards are to restore them back to where we can utilize them again."


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