Klamath Falls bucket brigade protests water shutoff

Published July 1, 2001

More than 20,000 people held a “bucket brigade” in Klamath Falls, Oregon on May 7 to protest the federal government’s decision to cut off irrigation water that serves more than 90 percent of the farmers in the area.

Participants passed 50 buckets of water, one for each state, through the heart of the town to illustrate their displeasure at the government’s decision to give first priority in the drought-stricken region to the protection of sucker fish and Coho salmon.

Fish outweigh farmers’ interests

On April 7, the federal Bureau of Reclamation decided to allocate nearly all water in the Klamath Project for the benefit of the sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake, and to the salmon in the Klamath River. Allowing farmers in the Klamath Water Basin to continue to irrigate their crops would jeopardize sustainable levels in the lake and river, concluded the Bureau.

On April 30, a federal judge denied citizens’ plea for water, citing treaty obligations to two area Native American tribes and obligations under the Endangered Species Act. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken denied a requested injunction against the federal government’s decision, stating the citizens were unlikely to show the federal government had violated the law in cutting off water to the farmers.

The judge agreed the farmers faced severe economic hardship as a result of the government’s decision. However, she determined the interests of the fish outweighed those of the farmers. The interests of the two local Native American tribes further supported the government’s decision to cut off the water, explained Aiken.

History of farming in the basin

Farming in the Klamath Water Basin began between 1900 and 1910 at the urging of the federal government. Farmers were encouraged to convert the region into a bread basket for fast-developing California because the government feared Californians would run out of food before the state could develop its own agriculture. Although farmers were promised irrigation water for their crops, the subsequently enacted Endangered Species Act trumped that such a promise, concluded the Bureau of Reclamation and Judge Aiken.

Participants in the bucket brigade pointed out that not only were they previously promised water to irrigate their crops, but that the region is heavily populated by homesteading veterans of World Wars I and II. Diverting the irrigation water was not only improper, they argued, but to do so without just compensation was particularly wrong.

Jim Tenney of the Frontiers of Freedom/People for the USA (FFPUSA), which helped organize the event, warned, “This will cause economic devastation to the area. Even local schools are already preparing for dramatic budget cuts” as a result of anticipated crop failures.

“We call upon Congress to recognize that while sucker fish are important, people are more important,” pleaded Ric Costales of the same organization. “Current law has it backwards. It is time for a new conservation approach that values wildlife and people and our constitutional liberties.”

“Federal bureaucrats have effectively decided that turning farms and ranches in Southern Oregon into a depression era dust bowl is good for the environment, good for wildlife and fish, and good for people. It doesn’t take much to see how wrong they are. . . . There is no reason why we can’t protect farmers and fish,” stated FFPUSA’s George Landrith.

Speakers at the bucket brigade rally included U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, U.S. Congressmen Greg Walden and Wally Herger, and numerous state and local elected officials.