MALIN, Ore. – When drought and the Endangered Species Act shut off irrigation on the Klamath Reclamation Project in 2001, farmers demonstrated and broke open headgates to let water into irrigation ditches, setting up a confrontation with federal agents.
Their defiance won the sympathy of President George W. Bush and Karl Rove, and they came to believe that they could change the law so people would take precedence over fish when it came to water. Even if the fish were on the verge of extinction.
But the Endangered Species Act survived, despite the best efforts of the Bush administration and some conservatives in Congress. And now farmers on the Klamath are facing another difficult drought year.
Signs with peeling paint proclaiming that “People are the REAL endangered species” lean against fences around the project, but no one expects a repeat of the 2001 conflict.
When tempers cooled, farmers sat down with Indian tribes, salmon fishermen, conservation groups and government agencies and worked out an agreement tied to removing four dams from the Klamath River to help salmon. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement contains a long list of provisions to help farmers through dry years, but has yet to be approved or funded by Congress.
In the agreement, farmers gave up the full amount of water they enjoyed in the past, in return for greater assurances they would not be cut off except in extreme drought years. A drought plan would be drawn up to include utilizing increased storage, buying water from willing sellers, tapping groundwater and prioritizing which lands get water.
Had the agreement been in force this year, supporters say it would have allowed for holding more water back last winter, and that there would be more available now.
Since the announcement last month that only 30 percent of normal irrigation could be expected this year, farmers are desperately searching for land with wells to water their potatoes, onions, grain and alfalfa. Rents are skyrocketing while jobs with irrigation districts and farm-dependent businesses are drying up.
“Now, most all of us, if we could pick up and move someplace where we knew we could make a living somewhere out of the project, we’d do it in a heartbeat,” said Bob Gasser, a leader of the 2001 demonstrations and a partner in Basin Fertilizer & Chemical in Merrill.
For a century, the irrigated soils straddling the Oregon-California border were a prized place to farm, even in drought. Midwestern farmers, Oklahoma migrant workers and veterans moved to the little towns of Merrill, Malin and Tulelake, Calif.
But in 2001, designation of Klamath River coho salmon as a threatened species tipped the balance. Federal courts ordered enough water for salmon, even if it meant not enough for farmers.
Sheriff Tim Evinger refused to arrest demonstrators who broke open irrigation headgates, despite pressure from federal authorities.
“It was going to inflame it and make it worse,” he said.
He and Gasser are among those who do not expect a repeat of 2001. Hammering out the restoration agreement built relationships between former enemies, and there is hope that next year will be better.
“Our grandfathers would kick our butts for doing what we did,” Gasser said of signing the restoration agreement with its cap on irrigation water. “But we understand we can’t change ESA. We are losing every lawsuit we’re getting into. Wake up. Get real. We can’t fight anymore.”