Drought and a Western
Legacy of US water policies pits farmers, native Americans, and environmentalists against one another
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The ESA - perhaps the most controversial and contentious environmental law - is at the heart of the recent decision by a federal judge severely limiting water diverted for irrigation this year. Snowpacks are at one-third their normal levels, and the judge ruled that three threatened or endangered fish take precedence: two species of sucker (called C'wam and Qupto by Indians here) and coho salmon, which migrate up the Klamath River as far as the Iron Gate Dam in northern California.Skip to next paragraph
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At a protest rally that drew more than 15,000 farmers and their supporters to Klamath Falls recently, rancher Bill Kennedy said, "The saddest thing is my relationships with people - family, employees, clients." His Lost River Ranch in Bonanza, Ore., he said, is "going to take a major hit financially." That means not being able to plant all his usual crops and cutting the number of cows from 1,200 to 500.
And even though farming and ranching here aren't as big a part of the local economy as they once were (due to international competition, for one thing), the situation ripples out into the community.
Watching the protest march through town from the roof of the South Valley Bank & Trust where he's a financial counselor, Tracy Ronningen explains: "It means fewer dollars coming into the bank to be loaned out - fewer people qualified to borrow money for car loans, ag loans, real estate loans. Fewer workers [in farming] mean fewer teachers. The equation just goes on and on."
But there's another part of the regional economy and society that takes a very different view of the balance among water uses. Some 250 miles downstream, where the Klamath River empties into the Pacific, fishing-dependent communities along the Oregon and California coasts have been hammered by the irrigation diversions, as well as logging, mining, and cattle grazing that can harm the river.
"Downriver economic losses have already been staggering," says Glen Spain, regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
"Roughly 3,780 family-wage jobs have already been lost in these downriver fishing-based economies (representing a net loss of economic impacts of $75.6 million a year) by the failure to protect and restore salmon within the Klamath Basin," Mr. Spain testified before the US Senate in March, "and several thousand remaining jobs are now at risk."
The Klamath River once was the third-most-productive salmon run on the West Coast. Today, native coho salmon are listed as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act, and all populations of salmon above the Irongate Dam in northern California are extinct because there are no fish ladders.
Then there are the Klamath Tribes (the Klamath, the Modoc, and the Yahooskin Band of Snake), whose traditional lands were whittled from 22 million acres to 880,000 acres until the tribes were "terminated" by federal law in 1954 and most of that land became national forests open to commercial logging. Up until then, the Klamath had been one of the most economically and socially successful native American groups in the United States.
In 1970, President Nixon declared the termination policy "morally and legally unacceptable," but by then tribal members were experiencing high rates of infant mortality, unemployment, and alcoholism. Recently, the 3,100-member Klamath tribes have begun the complicated political process of trying to regain 700,000 acres of their traditional lands.
"From the native American point of view, we've always wanted to sustain the land," says tribal vice-chairman Joe Hobbs. "We're looking to get the land back, and we want to restore it."
Critics dismiss the sucker fish as "bottom feeders," but Mr. Hobbs points out that "historically, we harvested over 50 tons a year" of the large fish now threatened with extinction. "And we had salmon before the dams went in," he adds. These days, the tribe takes only one fish a year for ceremonial purposes.