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Drought and a Western

Legacy of US water policies pits farmers, native Americans, and environmentalists against one another

By TextBrad Knickerbocker - staff PhotosRobert Harbison - staff / May 24, 2001


Seen from 1,000 feet in Rich Steinbock's slowly circling Cessna, the Klamath Basin seems to have it all: Six national wildlife refuges. Meandering rivers. Irrigation canals bringing precious water to productive farms and ranches. Rural communities spread out around a small city that has never seen a traffic jam. Crater Lake National Park to the north. Snow-capped Mt. Shasta to the south.

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Below, white pelicans, Canada geese, and hundreds of other migrating waterfowl circle and settle into one of the most important stops along the Pacific flyway.

But all is not as peaceful as it seems down there along the Oregon-California border.

Near Tulelake, Calif., Steve and Nancy Kandra - third generation farmers - hope and pray their 1,000 acres don't blow away as dust. Like the Kandras, hundreds of farmers here wonder whether they'll make it through what may become a drought this summer, especially since Uncle Sam has turned off the spigot on most of their irrigation water.

An hour or so north in Chiloquin, Ore., Klamath tribal leader Joe Hobbs, whose people have been here for thousands of years, watches as the fish, deer, and other wildlife they've traditionally relied on dwindle away with the water that sustained their habitats. It seems one more insult to a native American people who were pressured to give up their land under federal edict.

And in between, environmentalist and former high school biology teacher Wendell Wood stands along the shore of Klamath Lake and worries that the hundreds of bald eagles who come here from Alaska and Montana - the largest number in the lower 48 states - will not make it through another winter as the water level in the lake drops to where the fish and ducks the eagles feed on become scarce.

The situation has drawn national attention. Politicians have come out from Washington to rail against the federal laws that seem to put endangered species ahead of farmers in deciding who gets water during times of scarcity. National environmental groups, which liken the Klamath Basin to the Everglades in its biological richness, are just as adamant that the refuges - just a remnant of what once was a vast area of lakes and marshes - need more, not less, protection. The Klamath tribes see it as part of their fight to get back the land (and its resources) that most historians now say was wrongfully taken from them.

The symbols of this water war are rather lowly: Potatoes and sucker fish.

But there's much more to it than that, and the issues and the fundamental values behind them are profound, involving family farming, native American treaty rights, and environmental protection.

This is also a human drama that shows how misguided and conflicting federal policies going back a century can have widespread economic, social, and political impact. And the way it's resolved - for better or for worse - is likely to set the tone for other contentious debates involving property and natural resources, particularly as the Bush administration pushes for more locally controlled and economically driven policies.

"Whiskey's for drinking, and water's for fighting," Mark Twain once wrote about the constant battle over water out beyond the 100th meridian, where rainfall is scarce. And in some ways, this is a classic Western water-war story.

But it has a very modern twist in that it involves recently evolved thought on ecosystems and biodiversity as well as economic globalism. In other words, NAFTA (the North America Free Trade Agreement) may be just as important in this case as the federal Endangered Species Act.