Water On, Water Off?in Klamath Basin

July 7, 2008 - 8:19 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Saying "we have no idea who it was," the Klamath Falls Irrigation District confirmed Monday that one of the dams closed by court order was opened late Friday night or early Saturday morning, providing water to nearby parched farmland, and closed again on Monday.

For three months, some 1,400 farms, comprising some 200,000 acres along the California-Oregon border, have been without water, after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation decided on April 7 that the available water supply would be used to sustain "critical habitat" for two kinds of endangered fish.

The federal government ordered the irrigation water shut off after environmental activist organizations filed suit under the "citizen" lawsuit provision of the Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit resulted in a court decision that said the rights of the fish take precedence over the farmers' century-old water rights.

The water began flowing in the Klamath Basin this weekend following an apparently un-authorized opening of the spillway, but the bureau was quick to close the gate Monday afternoon.

According to Klamath Irrigation District Manager Dave Solem, a gate in a holding dam was opened manually by cranking a shaft with an adjustable wrench.

Solem said the government has no idea who opened the gate.

"It was some kind of act of desperation, there's probably no question of that," he said. "But whether it was an irrigator, or someone wanting to give irrigators a bad name, or just a vandal, we don't know."

Farmers previously said that if the irrigation system was not turned on by July, even the "cover crops" planted to guard against soil erosion could die.

According to Solem, the gate was opened approximately eight inches, which permitted the flow of about 50 to 80 cubic feet of water per second. He called that amount of water "very, very insignificant."

Meanwhile, people living in the Klamath Basin have been without irrigation water for three months, a situation that continues to outrage them.

"There are no crops left; they are already gone," Solem said. "They are not planted and they never will be this year. There are no grain crops. The pastures, for all practical purposes, are dead."

He added, "There was some stock watering to keep animals from dying of thirst, but now they're having to sell them to get rid of them because the water is gone."

Compounding farmer anger is the fact that it was the federal government that originally set up the Klamath Basin irrigation project nearly a century ago in an effort to encourage homesteaders to move west.

In a contract signed in 1909, the government agreed to provide irrigation water in exchange for farmers agreeing to cultivate the arid land.

Farmers say they never expected their own government to sacrifice their guaranteed water rights to save the bottom-feeding suckerfish as well as the Coho salmon. They say the government is putting the rights of fish above the rights of farmers, at the prompting of environmental activists.

In 1988, the suckerfish became "federally endangered," and in 1997 the Coho salmon was declared a "threatened" species. Both fish inhabit the Klamath Basin area, and it was environmentalists invoking the Endangered Species Act (ESA) who managed to turn the tables on the farmers.

With the livelihood of the region crippled, Solem says the worst is yet to come. "It's going to get worse as everything that people have starts to go down the drain," Solem said.

But Solem says the people of Klamath Basin are not giving up hope. "We are following every legal and political avenue, every administrative procedure, whatever we can do," he said.