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Water War Truce Declared by Klamath Basin Farmers

Environment: Protesters irked by an irrigation cutoff amid a drought to protect endangered fish say it's the wrong time for a federal fight.

September 16, 2001|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — For months, farmers here conducted a hot and caustic war of wits with the federal government over water.

Now, with the United States in a real war with a foreign enemy, Klamath Basin farmers have declared a truce.

Citing love of country and undying patriotism, protesters have pulled up stakes at the makeshift encampment they established at the head gates of the Klamath irrigation project, which serves a 200,000-acre swath of farmland straddling the Oregon-California border.

Tents have been uprooted. Lawn chairs, barbecues and most other signs of the encampment are gone.

Gone, too, is the unyielding rhetoric that made Klamath ground zero this summer for the push to reform the U.S. Endangered Species Act, drawing national media and a ragtag collection of anti-government groups from throughout the West.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the Klamath protesters say the time is wrong to go toe to toe with their own government.

"We realized that the national emergency takes precedence over our cause," said Bill Ransom, a leader of Klamath Relief Fund, the group that led the protests.

"We have a national crisis," added Debra Crisp, executive director of a group representing farmers in Tulelake, Calif. "We've all got to come together and do whatever we can to support our country. We disagree with what's happened here in Klamath, but we're still Americans."

Their foes in the environmental community welcome the truce, given the tenor of the times.

"At the moment, there's a lot of other things that the country needs to be concentrating on," said Steve Pedery, a spokesman for WaterWatch of Oregon.

The community has been bristling with anger and gripped with tension since April, when a historic drought prompted federal officials to cut off water to most of the region's 1,400 farmers. The prime concern was the welfare of two threatened species of sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and salmon in the river downstream.

Irked by the cutoff, protesters on July 4 stormed the head gates that control the flow of water into the irrigation project's main canal. In a distinctly rural act of civil disobedience, farmers took turns cranking open the gates. On three occasions in subsequent days, the irrigation monkey wrenching was repeated. Each time federal officials shut the gates within a few hours.

After local law officers refused to crack down on the protesters, federal police were called in to guard the canal portal.

Tensions eased a bit in August, when federal officials released 76,000 acre-feet of water to the farmers.

But the water ran out Aug. 23. Two weeks ago, 300 protesters climbed over a chain-link fence and set up an encampment right beside the canal gates. "It was an uncomfortable situation," said David Jones, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "We were, you could say, eyeball to eyeball with these protesters."

Tuesday's terrorist attacks back East changed everything.

On Wednesday, protesters met with federal officials and local law officers. After an hour of haggling, they agreed to pull up stakes until at least Jan. 1.

Jones said the Bureau of Reclamation will install sensors to detect any tampering at the head gates and provide additional fencing and better lighting. Once those improvements are completed, in about a month, federal police will pull out.

"We see this as a welcome opportunity to reduce the tension that existed in that area," he said. "We applaud them."

Local law enforcement officers said they will prosecute anyone caught trespassing, a shift from their tolerant stance of the past.

In the meantime, all sides hope some long-term solution can be cobbled together by winter.

Negotiations are continuing at the request of a judge in one of two lawsuits filed over the water distribution. Congress, meanwhile, is expected to address the Klamath situation this fall, as long as war doesn't overtake its calendar. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is promoting a plan that includes buyouts for farmers willing to sell their land to reduce water demand.

As it now stands, the basin lacks sufficient water for farmers, fish and waterfowl in seven out of every 10 years. So, short of a huge winter snowfall, the water shortage in Klamath isn't going away.

"Even if it's a normal year, there won't be enough to go around," said Pedery, the WaterWatch spokesman. "If we get another drought year, we'll have a train wreck."

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