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Farmers Settle In for Long Haul on Water Protest

Irrigation: Atmosphere is tense but peaceful in Klamath Falls as flow is briefly restored, then shut off again by officials. Residents set up barbecues, sleeping bags.

July 15, 2001|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Flanked by family and fellow farmers along the California-Oregon border, Walt Moden grabbed the bar and helped crank open the gate, breaking federal law as water gushed into an irrigation canal.

"My wife gave it a crank," he said. "I gave it a crank. My kids gave it a crank. My grandkids gave it a crank."

Soon after that, Sheriff Tim Evinger politely asked them and other protesters to step off the federal property in Klamath Falls, which they did. And early Saturday, for the first time since the farmers' supply of water was cut off in April to save endangered fish, the U.S. marshals came in to guard the irrigation project.

The unarmed officers arrived peacefully and Bureau of Reclamation officials shut the tap. Like the sheriff, the marshals made no arrests in what has been delicate sparring with the farmers who have almost universal sympathy in the town.

As authorities milled about and drank coffee, dozens of locals maintained their vigil outside the fence.

"They are going to have to man those gates for a long time," said Barbara Martin, a real estate broker in Klamath Falls.

She and others said they plan to stay on the site until the federal government decides to override the Endangered Species Act and release water to their desiccated farms.

"We've got nothing to lose," said Martin. "They've taken everything from us."

So in a scene that some said looked more like a Sunday picnic than a civil insurrection, locals were gearing up for the long haul.

Under giant tents, families barbecued, sat in lawn chairs, prayed and sang the national anthem. McDonald's brought Egg McMuffins for breakfast. Kentucky Fried Chicken brought lunch. Albertsons and Safeway supplied bottled water and other staples.

Perhaps the biggest coup for farmers came when a company meant to deliver portable toilets to the marshals abruptly disappeared Saturday--its owners apparently realizing what such service might do for their local reputation.

"People are finally excited that something is happening," said Martin.

In the last three months, the farmers have fought in court, they have begged for help and they have stood forlorn over dust and stubble. But as thirst drew deeper into the loamy valley soil, they focused their wrath more and more on the head canal gate of the federal project that brought them here so many decades ago.

Breaching the dike has largely been a symbolic act, because their crops are already gone. No amount of water could resurrect Moden's prized cutting of alfalfa, for example. "My farm is dead," said the 46-year-old farmer.

Still, he added: "I don't think there will be any aggression. Everything has been absolutely peaceful. People just want to draw more attention to what's happening here."

Although the situation is tense, the farmers say they can't risk going to jail after losing so much already. Some are facing bankruptcy and foreclosure.

"I think they are doing what is prudent by staying very peaceful," said Jeff McCracken, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the irrigation project and turned off the tap early Saturday. "That shows a lot of character for the community and families here--even though they opened the gates."

McCracken said he does not know of any other event in the bureau's history when it had to altogether deny farmers water. Nor, he said, has the agency ever sparked such acts of resistance from its customers.

The Klamath Reclamation Project is one of the oldest in the nation, dating back to 1907, and has drawn homesteaders ever since with the promise of fertile soil and reliable water.

In April, the bureau announced that it had to cut water to 90% of the project to save endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.

When farmers earlier this month opened the gate and let the water into the irrigation canals, the bureau welded it shut in an attempt to disable it, officials said. Crowds that had gathered at the time dispersed and by last weekend the town was calm.

But on Thursday night, the farmers began to gather again. They set up tents, fired up barbecues and played guitars. Children played and parents strolled along the canal. Many slept overnight in sleeping bags.

While some said the group was unified in their desire to breach the dike again, officials said some farmers wanted to protect it to ensure water would be available for next year.

The farmers who opened the gates said they were partially motivated by the Bush administration's decision Friday declining to convene a panel to decide whether the Endangered Species Act is unfairly depriving them of water. That dashed farmers' hopes that the government would intervene and release the water.

"There is no logic to why the federal government and environmentalists can deprive us of our property that we've spent a lifetime to build up," said a dairy farmer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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