Klamath farmers defy feds

Published September 1, 2001

Farmers in Oregon’s drought-stricken Klamath Basin celebrated Independence Day by repeatedly defying federal Bureau of Reclamation officials, diverting small streams of water from Upper Klamath Lake for their thirsting crops. Local authorities refused to intervene, and Bureau officials threatened to call in federal marshals and the FBI.

Klamath farmers rely on lake water to irrigate their crops and feed their livestock, but the Reclamation Bureau shut off the farmers’ water in April in the interests of endangered salmon and suckerfish. The Bureau ruled the fish’s rights to the water trumped those of the farmers, despite the government’s prior agreement to supply the farmers with irrigation water.

The Independence Day water diversions were symbolic in nature, amounting to little more than a trickle from the lake. “It just appears to me that they are trying to save their lives,” stated Klamath County sheriff Tim Evinger, explaining his refusal to intervene. “There were women and children at the headgates. It was a nonviolent situation.”

Others were not so understanding. Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council characterized the civil disobedience “as a case of vandalism and sabotage, and we condemn it.”

Protest leaders strengthened their resolve to defy the Bureau as their short-term legal options evaporated one by one. The U.S. Senate rebuffed an attempt by Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) to temporarily lower lake levels three feet to save the farmers. Immediately thereafter, on July 13, Interior Secretary Gail Norton refused to convene a “God squad” of cabinet-level officials with the authority to set aside Bureau decisions enforcing the Endangered Species Act.

A group of farmers announced they had hired property rights law firm Marzulla & Marzulla to present a Fifth Amendment Takings claim in federal court. However, courtroom litigation may take years to resolve the issue.

Senator Smith observed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had previously released a plan with a series of recommendations for the recovery of the suckerfish. While prescribing Upper Klamath Lake’s minimum level at 4137 feet above sea level, the plan called for the federal government to actively manage the lake with such programs as water aeration, removal of suckerfish predators, wetland rehabilitation projects, and enhancement of spawning habitats. After the government subsequently failed to act on the plan, it responded to current concerns over the suckerfish by raising the mandatory lake level to 4140 feet–effectively shutting off the water flow to the farmers who depend on the lake for irrigation and drinking water for their livestock.

“The people of the Klamath Basin are having their lives destroyed because a federal agency failed to take its own advice and do its job to recover fish,” stated Senator Smith. “Farmers are now being asked to pay for the government’s inaction, while the suckerfish may be no better off in the end.”

Added Smith, “The Endangered Species Act was never meant to rob people of their livelihoods; it was designed to guide the federal government’s management of wildlife recovery efforts. But instead of actively managing as even the Fish and Wildlife Service said it should, it has chosen to blindly throw water at the suckerfish and deprive farm families of that same water without any guarantee of ultimate success.”

The crowds attending the protests called on the federal government to amend the Endangered Species Act to take into consideration communities destroyed by its current enforcement. As July passed by, the crowds continued to grow, bringing increasing attention to the Act’s rough edges as currently written.