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Dreams Dry Up in Klamath Basin

Public policy allowed too many water-reliant interests to come into being. Drought triggers a collapse that could be repeated elsewhere.


KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — Gone is the familiar hiss of water through irrigating wheel lines, the hum of tractors and combines and the raucous honking of ducks. Even the whine of mosquitoes is eerily missing.

The barley should be hip-high in the field that Gene Haskins tilled like his father and grandfather before him. But his stunted crop barely reaches his knees in dried-up soil. Haskins filed for bankruptcy in April, as have dozens of local farmers, victims of a vicious drought and a century of ill-conceived public policy.

Along dusty roads in lip-splitting dry heat, signs of desperation are everywhere. Sheep grazing on bare ground run toward the road when a car stops, baaing furiously and wrapping their mouths around the strands of barbed-wire fence.

The farmers blame their plight on the Endangered Species Act, a law widely condemned for valuing wildlife more than people. But the cruel truth is that the farm economy and the environment are crashing in tandem.

Birds are dying as ponds dry up in wildlife refuges. The Klamath River Basin's six refuges are part of the largest wintering grounds for bald eagles in the Lower 48 states. The two refuges in the worst shape have depended on irrigation water ever since a network of marshes and lakes was drained to provide more water for agriculture.

The unfolding tragedy is the culmination of a century of unsustainable federal policies designed to satisfy demands for cropland, fishing, population growth and wildlife protection.

Experts warn that what is happening here may be a precursor of potential catastrophe looming in other Western communities accustomed to cheap and abundant federal water and plentiful wildlife.

"This has been coming for a long time. They overbooked the plane. There's only so much water, and they've given it too many times," said writer William Kittredge, a former rancher who grew up near Klamath Falls and whose books deal with water and other resources in the West. "The defining fact about the West is aridity."

Established in 1907, the Klamath irrigation project was one of the first of its kind. In 1947, a Life magazine cover story featured a beaming young World War II veteran and his bride who had won a lottery entitling them to a homestead on the rich soils of Tulelake, Calif., at the southern end of the Klamath irrigation project. It was a dream come true.

The dream dried up this spring, after the Klamath River Basin was seized by a historic drought. For the first time in 94 years, the federal water did not flow, starving 1,200 farms along the Oregon-California border. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in April announced a 90% reduction in irrigation water--leaving 19 of 21 water districts and two federal wildlife refuges with no water at all.

Federal officials blamed the water shut-off on the drought and a legal obligation to give first priority for water to imperiled fish--two species of suckers and the coho salmon--in the Klamath River and in Upper Klamath Lake. "We've been providing water to this community for 94 years, and we're really frustrated this year," said bureau spokesman Jeffrey S. McCracken.

Farmers erupted, protesting that the government valued fish over people. Hundreds of protest signs appeared almost overnight in bare fields and frontyards: "Loggers, Ranchers, Farmers, What's Next?," "Federally Created Disaster Area," "No Water, No Barley, No Beer."

Farmers and their supporters set up camp at the south end of Upper Klamath Lake, next to the now-shut head gates that seal off lake water from the irrigation canal leading to the water-deprived farms. Beyond a chain-link fence, federal law enforcement officers stand guard at the gates. Four times, protesters have forced open the gates and built a makeshift pipeline that sluices water toward ruined fields.

'That's Our Water,' Says One Protester

Tensions mounted last week when the protesters moved a large yellow excavator and a bulldozer onto the site and marked the earth with orange lines, as if they were about to carve their own canal from the lake toward their farms.

"The gist of the whole thing is that's our water," said Jon Hall, 49, motioning at the lake. "They've taken a fish and put it over you and me."

But others blame a system long overtaxed with too many obligations to farmers, fishermen, Native American tribes, migrating waterfowl and endangered wildlife.

"Federal policy on development and federal policy on environment--it's a collision," said Reed Marbut, intergovernmental coordinator at the Oregon Water Resources Department.

"This is one where it seems humans want it all," said David Yparraguirre, waterfowl coordinator at the California Department of Fish and Game. "We want to keep the agricultural base. We want the wildlife, with the fish. We want it all."

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