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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.


As the drought takes its toll on wallets and spirits, family nurse-practitioner Michael Sheets says he has been prescribing antidepressants to one of every three patients he sees. Retired from the U.S. Public Health Service, Sheets has spent his career working in poor rural areas, but he has seen nothing like this year in the Klamath Basin. He breaks down as he describes the pain he witnesses every day.

"I've got people puking blood, because of bleeding ulcers, because they're so angry," he said. "They don't want drugs. They don't want government handouts. They want to work."

Some farmers, like Gene Haskins and his parents, are ready to sell their land. Others, like Staunton, want to see a plan crafted to allow farming to continue in this troubled valley, perhaps slightly reduced with a redesigned irrigation system and improved water quality.

"Agriculture's headed for a horrible outcome unless we resolve this," Staunton said. As for the farmers who settled this valley: "We have to approach the Klamath like we did San Francisco after the earthquake. We didn't blame people for building on an earthquake fault."

The Silence Is Haunting

On Wednesday, Haskins applied for assistance to go to truck-driving school.

He insists he is ready to sell out, but he still wanders through his fields, looking for signs of life, finding faint hope in a frail green shaft of barley.

"There's going to be something out here," Haskins said, his voice suddenly becoming animated. "It's got kernels in it, and it's starting to get some meat on it."

Then, he moves on to another field that lies fallow. The silence is haunting, he says. Normally, you'd hear tractors, irrigators, people driving around.

"The farmers around here, I imagine they're awful bored. Sitting around at home. Wondering."

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