TULELAKE, Calif. — In the past, the rich farm fields in these parts would be greening up about now. Rob Crawford would be dutifully toiling over his crop--wheat and barley and potatoes--like generations before him.
But these days Crawford stands idly at the edge of fields that lie stark and fallow. With blue eyes narrowed against the stiff wind, he watches as gusts whip away the fertile soil and kick up a massive dust plume--blanketing houses, schools and stores.
To Crawford, it looks as if his whole community might just blow away.
He and the 1,500 other farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin, a productive agrarian region straddling the Oregon border, have been denied water this year. They are casualties of a drought and efforts to save endangered fish. In the long history of Western water wars, it is the first time a community has been forced to stop farming, experts said.
Without water, delivered reliably for nearly a century by a federal irrigation project that taps the mighty Klamath River, the farmers can't plant. Many face bankruptcy or outright ruin.
So do people at the irrigation equipment store, the packing sheds, the seed warehouses. Already, many of the region's 3,000 or so farm laborers, who have lived here for decades, are eyeing work elsewhere.
The grocer is worried about dwindling business. So is the school principal. On Friday, Gov. Gray Davis declared a state of emergency in the region.
"This thing," Crawford, 43, muttered, "is so rotten and so wrong."
Judge Rules for Fish
These farmers have lost at nearly every step--in jousts with federal stewards of wildlife and the fisheries, in fights with commercial fishermen and Native American tribes, in two federal courts. The most recent setback came Monday in Eugene, Ore., where a U.S. district judge said the need to protect endangered species--two types of sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and the threatened coho salmon in the river downstream--outweighed the economic needs of the farmers.
But the growers are a hardy lot, many of them from families lured to the region by government promises of free-flowing water forever. They've had a good run. About 250,000 acres are in agriculture, all of it family farms. The loamy soil of this drained lake bottom has been good to them. Now they talk of feeling cheated. They vow to fight to the end.
To dramatize their plight, thousands of people are expected to mount a protest Monday in Klamath Falls, Ore. Fifty farmers, representing each of the states, will form a ceremonial bucket brigade down the main street.
Some locals see a 21st century dust bowl in the making.
"This is an epic tragedy, the remaking of the "Grapes of Wrath,"' said Larry Turner, a local wildlife photographer. "The Endangered Species Act has an overbite that doesn't factor in people."
But there are people behind the endangered fish.
In Oregon's Upper Klamath Lake, the two kinds of sucker fish are part of the cultural heritage of three Indian tribes--the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin. C'wam and Qupto, they call the fish. Since regaining sovereign status in 1986, the tribes have pushed to protect the Upper Klamath.
From the lake, the Klamath River dives into California, cascading hundreds of miles through forests and mountain ranges before emptying into the sea. The Yurok tribe has long fished its waters, the third-most productive salmon fishery in the United States, but the salmon have diminished. Commercial anglers out of ports up and down the coast have likewise seen their livelihood dwindle.
"We need that water for our fisheries, just as much or more than the farmers," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. "Our communities have been systematically strangled."
Spain contends that the depletion of salmon has cost 3,700 jobs. In a drought year like this one, with the snowpack that feeds the Klamath one-third of normal, the farmers can eke by on federal assistance, Spain said. But the fish "only have one river."
Troy Fletcher of the Yurok tribe said his people don't relish seeing farmers hurt. But he and others believe agriculture in the Klamath Basin has taken too big a share of Sucker fish and salmon were added to the nation's endangered species list in the 1990s. But several seasons of heavy rain kept water in the river and the fight from flaring. With the drought, federal fishery biologists warned of the salmon's demise if water volume down the Klamath River wasn't doubled. Scientists, meanwhile, called for increased water levels in Upper Klamath Lake to give the suckers a better chance.
In early April, a lawsuit by fishermen and environmentalists ended in an order against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the hundreds of miles of earthen canals and irrigation ditches that have served the Klamath region since 1907.