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Protesting Farmers Divert Water to Canal

Environment: Growers in Klamath Basin are camping out in an ongoing demonstration. No arrests are made.

July 16, 2001|From Staff and Wire Reports

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — About 100 farmers used an irrigation line to bypass a canal head gate on the California-Oregon border Sunday, sending water down an irrigation canal that has been parched since water was shut off in April to protect threatened and endangered fish.

The farmers, who have camped out at the canal head gate for several days near Klamath Falls, placed a pump in Upper Klamath Lake and ran about 200 yards of irrigation pipe along a fence and into the canal on the other side of the gate, federal and county officials said. The pipe was 8 inches in diameter, according to the farmers' Web site.

Agents with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation did not plan to arrest anyone because no fish were being sucked through the head gate and the lake's water level had not dropped, said Jeff McCracken, a bureau spokesman.

"It remains peaceful and it remains the goal . . . to do everything that we can to see that it stays peaceful," he said.

McCracken estimated that farmers were draining 5 to 10 cubic feet of water per second from the lake. They began operating the line around 2 p.m., he said.

"We hope they are just doing this today as a symbolic gesture," said Patricia Foulk, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman.

Protester Joe Bair, 47, of Klamath Falls concurred late Sunday night saying "it's more symbolic than anything else" as he walked the length of the aluminum pipe.

More than 30 people kept vigil in the darkness at 10 p.m., warming their hand with coffee cups and talking among themselves. Protester had scrawled on the pipe "Amend the ESA" referring to the Endangered Species Act.

"It ain't no peace pipe," one young man called out.

Federal officials are studying whether the protesters' pipeline violates the Endangered Species Act.

In April, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cut off water to 90% of the land in the Klamath Project in favor of endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.

Drought conditions mean there is not enough water for both fish and the farmers.

Since the water was shut off, farms with no other source of water have been forced to sell off cattle, let pastures and hay fields go brown and give up annual plantings of potatoes, grain and other crops.

Angry groups have wrenched opened the head gates four times, most recently on Friday. Federal marshals took protesters by surprise early Saturday morning and shut the gates.

The Bureau of Reclamation closed the head gate each time, citing the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits federal agencies from doing anything to jeopardize the survival of protected species.

The federal action marks the first time that salmon fishermen and the Klamath tribes, who once depended on the fish for food, have won out over farmers on water allocations since the irrigation system known as the Klamath Project opened in 1907.

On Sunday, dozens of farmers continued to camp out along the irrigation canal.

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