Bucket Brigade for ESA reform

Published August 1, 2001

April 6, 2001, is a day that will live in infamy in the lives of thousands of people in the Klamath Basin region of Northern California and Southern Oregon.

That was the day the Bureau of Reclamation, based on a federal judge’s ruling that sided with extremist “environmental” organizations, cut off irrigation water from a federally administered project to over 200,000 acres involving 1,400 farms and ranches in the basin.

In depriving these people of their water, Judge Sandra Armstrong’s ruling will result in an economic loss estimated at $400 million this year alone; the dislocation of hundreds of agriculture-dependent families; the bankruptcy of an estimated 40 percent of Klamath Project farmers and ranchers; and untold havoc to regional social services, schools, families, businesses, communities, and even wildlife dependent on water from this project.

And all of this will have been done in the name of threatened or endangered species protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Rally attracts 20,000 protestors

As might be expected, people in the region are not taking this assault on their water rights and livelihoods lying down. On May 7, the largest rally the nation has yet seen over ESA-related issues was held to dramatize the need for reform. The Klamath County Sheriff Department, in charge of crowd control, estimated the number of participants at roughly 20,000.

That so many people from all over the United States would come to a relatively isolated area on a work day illustrates the gravity of a situation rapidly heading toward a major confrontation between the federal government and the people whose rights it was created to protect.

The Klamath River Basin situation is unlike other “run of the mill” ESA tragedies. Here, the federal government is slapping this calamity on WWI and WWII veterans and their descendants–who risked their lives defending the principles for which this nation stands.

A promise broken

In the interest of promoting agricultural production to feed our growing nation and the world, at the turn of the century the federal government proposed an irrigation project and lured homesteaders to the Klamath River Basin area. Once to WWI veterans and twice to WWII vets, the feds freely deeded water and land to them and their heirs in perpetuity, with the stipulation that the homesteaders repay the costs of the project.

The costs were repaid in full a number of years ago, and the annual costs of administering the program are also paid. The farmers have kept their end of the bargain.

Not so the feds. Between the National Marine Fisheries Service on behalf of the Coho salmon, and the Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of two species of suckerfish, the feds claimed the entire amount of water flowing through the project this year and an estimated six out of 10 future years.

Drought is cited as the reason, although the lakes from which the water is drawn are at record levels and water is being spilled at exceptionally high volumes. Many residents along the Klamath River describe the river as “plumb full” . . . yet no water is being shared with farmers in urgent need of establishing at least a cover crop to prevent soil loss, estimated at 4 tons per acre this year.

Enter the Bucket Brigade

Grassroots activists from the region developed an idea, a variation on a theme that originated in Jarbridge, Nevada, to dramatize the situation. In Jarbridge, a “shovel brigade” was convened to open a road closed by federal government actions on behalf of another supposedly endangered fish. The Jarbridge folks were extremely successful in drawing national attention to a local ESA problem–and that was the outcome desired by the Bucket Brigade organizers.

Buckets of water would be passed hand to hand from Klamath Lake through downtown Klamath Falls into an irrigation ditch at the other end of town–perhaps the longest bucket brigade on record! This act would not only symbolize whose water it was, but also illustrate the determination of the people to whom it belonged. As I put it at the time I proposed the concept to community leaders, it was “time to dump a little tea in the harbor.”

There were many in the region who felt the federal government’s action justified a far more radical response. It is a measure of the dedication these communities feel to this country’s ideals that respect for the process prevailed and a successful rally and follow-up in Washington, DC were held.

There is no telling what will ultimately transpire as a result of the seizure of water rights in the Klamath Basin. But the history books will surely record that the people in the region measured up in every way to the level of respect for American principles that prompted the original homesteaders to defend these ideals so honorably in battle on foreign lands.

Behind and beyond the Bucket Brigade

Before the Bucket Brigade, the agricultural community had focused its efforts on lobbying and legal wrangling. No attention had been paid to developing and organizing grassroots support for the area’s agriculture. As other natural resource development interests, most notably timber and mining, have found, this can be a fatal neglect.

Throughout the planning, staging, and follow-up to the Bucket Brigade, correcting this deficiency was the primary focus. The difficulty, as in any political effort, was how to motivate people to become involved. Americans often seem to have little sympathy for job loss, the attendant hardship, or even the economic and social withering of communities.

There may, however, be growing recognition that there are limits to people’s tolerance for such hardball.

It is one thing for misfortune to befall families or communities as a result of market or other natural forces. It is quite another to have those tragedies take place as a result of government action . . . and it is particularly painful when government action violates the rights and spirit of justice that Americans regard as their birthright.

By uniting behind the principles that should guide the federal government’s relationship with its people, there may yet be hope to reform such misguided efforts as the ESA. The challenge is how to educate a population that is becoming less aware of these principles with each succeeding generation.

It will be far worse than taking their water, if the veteran homesteaders from the Klamath Basin are rewarded for their sacrifice by America’s abandonment of those hard-won ideals.

Ric Costales is a member of Frontiers of Freedom/People for the USA and was instrumental in organizing the Klamath Bucket Brigade.